Monday, December 19, 2016

There’s a hole in my heart.

There have been enormous changes in this area in the 50 plus years that I’ve been living here, and there have been many things that I grew up always expecting to remain that no longer do. Wonderful places that no only remain in photographs, super 8 movies, paintings and my memory. These losses are things that pain me deeply.

Georgica Pond used to be covered with lily pads so thick that you couldn’t see the surface of the water as you pushed softly through a haze of dragonflies with your rowboat, your oars lifting the flower stems which slide gently off like the thickest, most elegant green noodles you could ever imagine. Now the waters are 190 acres of dangerously polluted toxic soup.
I used to celebrate my birthday with Mr. Nichol’s and his pony rides on the triangle of land where the western end of Georgica Road bifurcates before joining up with Montauk Highway. I got one free turn for each year of my age and I remember wishing only to be older so that the ride would last longer. If only I was twelve! I think there was a house on the property and a tiny barn where my birthday porters spent shivery winters, but for me it was a tiny slice of heaven. That property, now complete with house and pool, two years ago was for sale for $3.55 million. Bye bye ponies, I miss you.

From the time you crossed the Shinnecock Canal until you got out to Montauk there was only one place where, if you looked south on sunny days, you could see a stretch of silver shimmering just above the dunes, a sliver of the sea. That was Sagaponack and that view is long gone, visible only in the paintings of Barbara Thomas and Sheridan Lord.

The enormous dune that I grew up hiding from the wind behind, building complicated secret dune grass shelters in which imaginary sand fairies played, and in whose sheltering shoulders I reveled in the power of teenaged kiss, was erased by hurricane Sandy, rubbed flat as completely as if it had never existed.

I used to ride my horse bareback from Patsy And Alvin Toppings Swan Creek Farm diagonally northeast to get to Carvel where we would both have soft serve ice cream cones. I had chocolate with chocolate sprinkles and my horse had vanilla with multicolored sprinkles. Then we would swim, or rather my horse would swim and I’d clutch his mane, as we ventured into Kellis Pond to cool off. To get there and back we could have headed straight through the farm fields, without a single house to block our path, the only structure being the strange bowling pin shaped structure (later learned to be a radio transmitter for the East Hampton Airport) that lived in Jack Musnicki’s fields. We stayed on the roads (most of the time) out of respect for the farmer’s crops, but there was never a more incredible open sky view then that of laying flat back on your horse’s wet haunches, reins slack as he walked patiently and determinedly back to the barns, with nothing surrounding you but fields and clouds.
There have always been out here places where you can experience wonder, and when they are gone we mourn their losses deeply. I don’t think it’s just about growing older and losing the ability to see and be and experience life as a child, although that change is, in it’s own way, somewhat devastating, and although I wish I could give the people I love the ability to see this area through the eyes and the heart of my younger self, I wouldn’t want them to share the pain.

Last week we gained more pain.

A part of me died when I watched the fa├žade of the Sag Harbor Movie theatre crumble and fold in upon itself. I know they saved the sign, and that’s great (although it’s not the original sign – that was removed in 2004) but for me that building was a lot more than just a sign.

What makes us mourn a structure? Is it the way the building felt? Or the way we felt when we were within it? Or just the loss of the familiarity of something that has been with us for a long time?
I love the Sag Harbor movie theater and everything it represents. It determinedly persisted in being the theater I remember it to be, and wanted it to stay. A single screen theater, like the one on Southampton once was, with it’s incredible, and to a child, awe inspiring massive chandelier that I still miss, the Sag Harbor movie theater has been with me my entire life. I am a regular now and have always been so. I had planned to see Moonlight there last week, the previous week I had gone with my father to see Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. We’ve been sharing movies there together my entire life.

I loved the seats, even though I know they were uncomfortable. I loved that there were no previews. That the popcorn was not that great. That if this theater didn’t didn’t exist the only way I’d ever see the films they showed would be if I rented them at home. But isn’t that the point of going to the movies? To not be in your home. To step out of your own world and become engulfed in a new one, to sit in a dark room with no hint what’s going on outside the walls, no idea if the sky is blue or black, and just be taken to another place by the way colors and sound have been mixed and rearranged on a huge screen that fills not just your vision, but your whole soul?

I have fallen in love in that building and also had my heart broken. I’m been terrified, overjoyed, disappointed, inspired, agitated, filled with hope, brought to tears, astonished, awed, devastated and laughed until I couldn’t breathe. I sobbed there so hard once that the strangers sitting a few seats over from me offered me not just their tissues, but comfort as well. I’ve been mesmerized, challenged, transported, staggered, amused, educated, and totally swept away.

I’ve been blessed, as have we all, but now that cavernous gaping space on Main Street only reflects the enormous gulf in my chest I feel knowing that The Sag Harbor movie theater is not there anymore. Luckily I know that the reason we love Sag Harbor is that I am not the only person here that relies on these kinds of quirky, non-mainstream, noncommercial stories to keep her whole. And that as a community we will come together to make sure this part of the Hamptons is not going to be lost forever.

Paige Patterson mourns the drive-in too, but in a different way, as that’s where she first saw Dumbo.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Explainations of Acorns

There are about a billion acorns all over the ground this fall and people keep asking me what it means. I had always heard that a huge number of acorns presages a cold winter, a winter that arrives late and is bone achingly cold, but honestly neither I, nor most scientists that study these things, really know what triggers these overabundances.

There are lots of trees that have years of overabundance, and in Europe, where people have kept notes on the fruiting patterns of many species of trees for hundreds of years (because that’s what Europeans do) there’s been no real rhythm or rhyme in environmental clues as to why trees in some years have such a large number of fruit or nuts. 

What we do know is that when oaks do this, they are having what is a called a mast year. The phrase comes from the word masticate, and it refers to any fruit, seeds or nuts that any trees or shrubs produce which could be considered food for animals. A mast year is when a fruiting tree produces 5 to 10 times as many seeds, or fruits or nuts than it normally does. Although these bumper crops are cyclical, the cycles don’t seem to be regular. My apples do this, some years we have crazy heavy crops and the next many of the trees are much lighter, but not all of my varieties of apples do this, so I always have a lot of apples, but not always on all my trees. And it’s not as simple as the heaviest fruiters taking a break the next year. This year I have three trees that aren’t really producing any apples, but none of them are the tree that had the most apples. The tree that made the most apples last year, so many that branches the size of my thigh in diameter snapped and dropped under the weight, was again this year, just plain overwhelmed with apples.

But back to our masting acorn trees. According to some scientists, the phenomenon might be weather related, and since acorns take one to two years to form and fall (depending on the species), it would be the temperature and precipitation (or lack of it) from the previous year that determined the rate of acorn production from year to year. Unfortunately, it’s not can’t be quite that simple, since masting trees tend to happen simultaneously across a geographic area so large that the weather patterns within it are too diverse to be the only cause.

Some believe this widespread synchronization is caused by a chemical signal or cue the trees are giving off that triggers them to have such abundance. Another thought is that masting trees are just the results of trees that are have succeeded in maximizing the efficiency of their pollen. If all the oaks everywhere can release their pollen simultaneously, they will have a seriously improved their chances of germination and thus increased acorn production.

Every year oak trees drop acorns, acorns they’ve produced to guarantee they have offspring. These offspring are the way to ensure the future of the oak population, so each year every oak tree should try to produce more acorns than they need to, just to make up for those that the various squirrels, turkeys, chipmunks, voles, deer and mice (the masticators) are going to eat up over the winter. And this is the basis of the last theory on masting trees.

In a regular year a single oak tree will produce thousands of acorns, but in a mast year it can produce up to 10,000 acorns. This strange occasional cycling of massive amounts of produce and then a dearth (boom and bust) means that the acorn predators are kept off balance. If a tree produced the same amount of seeds or apples or nuts every year, the predators of those seeds, apples and nuts would have a reliable food source and would just keep growing in population until there were enough of them that the would gobble up every single thing these trees dropped, and there would be no chance for the trees to have offspring. Have a few years when there are not a lot of acorns (a series of bust years) and the population that’s been dining on their nuts will starve and crash. Then, if you can follow a bust year with a boom year or two, and the predator population has crashed, some of your boom year acorns will have a significantly better chance to sprout and become seedling oaks. Evolution will of course favor those trees that reproduce the best, and the ones that do it by tricking their predator population with mast years seem to be leading the way.

There are two additional side effects things to a mast year of which we need to be mindful. First that when there’s plenty of food for the voles and squirrels and mice, the following year there will be plenty of food for the predators of these small mammals, the raptors.  This is great news, and I’m super excited that this abundance of acorns means that the owl and hawk populations are going to explode. Unfortunately one of the top acorn eaters in our area is the white-footed mouse, and when there’s an explosion of acorns, the following year there’s normally an explosion of these mice, the same mice that are really more responsible for the deer tick population in our neck of the woods than the deer they are named after.

So more acorns also means more mice which means mores ticks which means more Lyme disease. Sigh. Thanks acorns.

On a side note, when I tried to explain the cycling of the acorns to my husband Dereyk, he asked why if all these other mammals ate acorns, humans didn’t and I proudly got to tell him that acorns are actually a great source of protein, fat, carbohydrates, potassium, vitamin C, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus and niacin and that the Iberian ham made from pigs fed on a diet consisting mostly of acorns is thought to taste as good as it does because the high level of anti-oxidants in the acorns prevents lipid oxidation in the ham. And of course I added that I had, in fact, once eaten dotorimuk, a thick Jell-O like substance made from acorns when I was dining in a monk run vegetarian restaurant in Seoul, but that I wouldn’t make acorns a staple in our food pantry, since most species contained high levels of tannins that make them awfully astringent and bitter to the palette. And that acorns were once considered a staple food substance for Native Americans and that the ancient Greeks partook of them as well.

Dereyk just shook his head at me and said that right there was a perfect description of the kinds of people we were. That I was a person who ate acorns and he was a person that only ate things that ate acorns. And that he thought he was on the better team, but that next time I had the acorn Jell-O I should ask them to make it with a lot more sugar.

Paige Patterson is STILL picking up apples from all over her yard.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Being a biophiliac

I discovered a new word today, one that I wish to throw around with wild abandon and share with everyone. Biophilia. A word first used by Erich Fromm, a German born American psychoanalyst in his 1973 treatise The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a word he categorized as being, “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.”

This word is brilliant. This is a word that explains everything about the choices I made as I've moved forward and deeper into the world I define as my own. It encompasses everything I believe in. That I am happiest when I am able to walk on the beach with my toes digging deeply into the sand. That when I'm out of sorts I can go outside and stroke the leaves of my trees and change my mood. That just noticing that my tulpelo tree (Nyssa sylvatica) is a female and thus is covered with tiny black fruits with which the birds are celebrating will lift me to a different place than where I was before I spotted them. That no matter how stressed I am, spending a moment or two scratching a furry critter's head will make me breathe easier. It’s why carrying a twig of the electric fall foliage of a witch hazel around the garden and sometimes sticking it behind my ear changes my outlook on everything. I’m thrilled to possess this word.  

According to Edward O. Wilson, the entomologist Curator of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard and a Pulitzer Prize winner, who wrote a book titled Biophilia in 1984, this condition is, "the urge to affiliate with other forms of life." It is this urge, he posits, that when followed, brings us to places of great joy.  And it is an urge that every human on the planet feels. In his book Wilson hypothesizes that it is this innate relationship we have with the natural world that will allow us to perhaps save it. He talks about how we not only have a practical dependence on nature (without clean water and usable soil we would all die) but that we also find solace and peace and emotional sustenance through our direct interactions with nature.

The natural world inspires us to make art, we find it’s sounds soothing and it’s visuals beautiful. Thus landscape painting and ocean recording to send us to sleep. I challenge anyone to find the sound of rain on a tin roof upsetting. We mimic its smells to make both ourselves and our homes more enticing, and are uplifted by the appearance of a rainbow for no other reason than it is beautiful. We create strong emotional attachments with both the land and with it’s other many creatures, and it’s all of this combined that makes us whole.

But many of us have grown disconnected from that wholeness, especially our children. They don’t have the same easy way with their natural surroundings that I, and many of their parents did. And it’s sad. It’s easy to blame technology, especially when you watch people you love staring at their various screens instead of watching the clouds rapidly shape shift on windy days. I want to drag those kids into the garden with me. I feel like an old person whenever I start a sentence with, “When I was that age….” But it’s true. When I was that age my world was accessible only by bicycle and I didn’t have a computer to play on. I had the back yard or a park or a garden or fields, woods and the beach. I knew that fall was not far away when the dragonflies thickened above my head and that winter was coming because of the smell in the air. I burned leaves, I climbed trees and I played in the dirt. I picked up caterpillars and tried to get butterflies to land on my nose. I had an intimate relationship with my outdoors, whether pressing fall foliage in the family’s heaviest dictionary, or cuddling with kittens in a farming friend’s hayloft. I wish I could force these experiences on the children I know and love, but it doesn’t work that way. They have to be coaxed, not dragged.

I was in a bad mood this morning, having not slept well and having worriedly spun myself up over all sorts of mental noodles, and I was irritated that I had to get up extra early to forage for a class I was teaching on how to decorate with things you can find outdoors. The trunk of my car wasn’t working and I couldn’t find the clippers I wanted and I broke a dried allium seed head I had hoped to use for this year’s Christmas tree as a star, so I started off the day pretty cranky. Gathering armfuls of purple and red foliage, slicing aged, faded, pink tardiva like panicle hydrangea flowers on arm length long stems and clipping branches ladened with berries helped. Noticing the bees leaving the hives in their endless search for sweetness helped. Smelling the errant mint that was captured by mistake with handfuls of purple flowered monkshood helped. The sky being electric blue helped as did the wind that blew all the anger from within my soul as it whipped my hair around my head like a wound up basket of cobras being directed by an overly enthusiastic snake charmer. By the time I got to work and started assembling all my pieces into an enormous vase I was calmer. And thankful. And happy.

I want to share this feeling, this biophilia, with everyone. I want to scream from the rooftop that everything is better when we stay connected with the natural world. I want to take each and every one of you out on the same walk I made through my garden this morning and share the way my brain’s song changed from strident and jagged to melodious. Let us all get muddy together, let us walk through rivers up to our knees and have the socks in our boots get soggy. Let us rub up against another living thing that isn’t human and whisper to it all our secrets, both fabulous and burdensome. Let us breathe deeply of this fresh fall air and embrace all that nature has surrounded us with. Let us reek with gratitude.

Paige Patterson has seven nonhumans cuddled up with her on the couch this evening and couldn’t be happier.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Too Many Apples

When I bought my house 20 plus years ago, I hadn’t actually been in the structure. In fact the only time I had even been on the property was ages earlier, when as a child, I had decided that I wanted to meet the man who was raising bees in an ancient collection of hives and had three enormous apple trees. I had always told my family, or whoever was in the car as we drove past his hedges, that when I grew up I wanted to own the Bee Man’s house. In retrospect I find it fascinating that I had the hubris to walk up to a stranger’s front door and knock on it in full expectation of getting a tour, but it was a different time, and I really wanted to know what it was like to raise bees. Plus I think my parents must have encouraged me.

It was an awkward conversation. The gentleman didn’t have a lot of experience with precocious children, and I was used to having adults think me charming, something this gentleman obviously wasn’t feeling about the little blonde at his door. I don’t remember much about our conversation, other than speaking about the mint that was growing all over his property, and his telling me his frustration that when you bought packages of peppermint, many of the seeds were actually for spearmint instead. At the time I wasn’t as knowledgeable of the differences in mint as I now am, and I call vividly recall chewing the pungent leaves he handed me and thinking that what he was calling spearmint, didn’t really taste the same as the Doublemint gum that was my only other spearmint taste comparison. I can still feel the fuzzy buzz of the leaves against my tongue, and to this day associate the taste of spearmint with a general sense of awkward anxiousness and a need to please.

I think he showed me his bees and we must have spoken about the apples, because before I bought the property I knew that the biggest tree actually had two different varieties of apples, one of which was a clear, yellow, sweet fruit and that the first tree was created with many grafts, all of which were of the same apple, just cut from one side of the tree and grafted to the other. At the time I thought it was a peculiar thing to do, to graft branches of a tree back onto itself, and although I now understand that he was just experimenting and playing, I vividly remember wanting to understand his motivation, but being too scared to ask. He must have told me what the various names of the apples were, but I didn’t carry that knowledge forward. I wish I knew now, but I’m afraid I have no clue. All I know now is that I have one of the largest apple trees in the area, and when fall comes, I have way too many apples rolling around the lawn.

Too many apples doesn’t sound like a terrible problem does it? A surplus bounty of deliciousness, shouldn’t make you crazy, but trust me it does. As I too, raise bees, each year my apple trees are loaded, and there are way more apples than I can make into pies, applesauce and dumplings, crumbles, smoothies and juice. I am an apple butter queen, it’s deeply fabulous, but I still have tons left over from last years harvest, and each day more and more fruits fall to the ground. Fruits that I just can’t pick up fast enough. It’s a Sisyphean process, the picking up of apples from the lawn. I pick them all up in buckets, gathering all the ones that are still fit to eat in piles on the front porch while the rest get dumped into the compost pile. If I don’t get them fast enough, the wasps and hornets find them and feast upon their sweet nectar. There is nothing quite like stepping on an apple satiated hornet with your bare foot, trust me it’s an experience you’d like to avoid. Both my dogs and myself have suffered the nasty biting pain of a stinger in the toe, and so we always have a good supply of Benadryl stocked up for the fall.

Worse of all, I soon have too many apples to be able to process them properly. So I start to give them away. I start leaving them on friends’ stoops, and then on acquaintances’ stoops, soon start thinking about leaving them on strangers’ front steps. And then I start throwing perfectly fine apples away. The compost pile becomes a pungent, apple cider vinegar smelling mess and I feel guilty, it’s such a waste. I send out emails to people who like to bake. “It’s apple pie season,” the subject reads, “come on over.” And I start to fall behind. There are just too many. Before I had a deer fence, I used to come home to herds hanging out beneath the trees, mothers, daughters, nephews and aunts all feasting, wet juices running down their chins. And I was grateful for their voracious appetites. Now maybe I should put them out on the road in baskets with a sign that reads “free” like the abandoned sofas and broken furniture that I sometimes spot lounging on the edge of people’s driveways.

The worst part is that they’re not really pretty apples, so people are hesitant to accept them. The clear yellow ones are super juicy and sweet but every year they’re spotted with a strange case of red freckles. Of all my apples, they would be the most visually acceptable to those you claim to like apples, but the measles make people nervous, we’ve all become too accustomed to perfect looking fruits. The rest have rough skins, and brown sides, that look unappetizing, but are the best apples I’ve ever worked with as a cook (thus my amazing apple butter) and are actually my preferred eating fruits. The taste of these apples is richer, more complex and for me, more rewarding to eat. They call apples that have this kind of skin russets. Russets are amazing apples, they last longer than most apples and their flavors are prized by fruit connoisseurs. Most modern apples have had the russet bred out of them, along with their richer, denser flesh, as the modern shopper prefers a shiny apple with a cruncher bite.

Call me old fashioned, but I wouldn’t trade my apples for the store bought variety any day, but it does mean that each time I hand them over I have to give a little history lesson on the perils of modern shipping techniques for heritage flavors. Sometime people listen and sometimes people smile at me like I’m a little crazy. That’s fine, we already know I’m a little crazy, but it doesn’t mean I’m not right about the apples. Don’t believe me? Feel free to stop by and grab a couple of the fruits off my front tree and try them yourself. Actually while you’re at the house why don’t you take as many apples as you can. And take a few for your friends too, and for any strangers you might know, or anyone you might know who has room on their front steps for a bushel of apples or two. Or three. Please. My compost pile is already really, really full.

Paige Patterson wishes she had are many figs as she has apples, but has yet to succeed in getting them to bare any fruit.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Editing in August

It’s hard to not be able to garden.

An impinged nerve. That’s what they tell me it is, but in my language, it’s sharp shooting pain in my arm and an electric buzzing in my thumb and pointer finger whenever I reach for anything with my right hand. Can’t pull weeds, can’t dig holes, can’t transplant, can’t deadhead. All I can do is look.

It’s good for me. It’s teaching me to really see. It’s frustrating, but educational, and that’s always a good thing. Or so I keep telling myself.

It’s not great for the garden. My garden has exploded with weeds, with flowers too, the dahlias are battling the tomatoes for room and the roses that a friend is deadheading for me are getting ready to blow up with color all over again, but a garden is a living breathing thing, at least the way mine is created, and it’s got to be kept in check.

But really, the thing that’s making me uncomfortable is that now that I can’t just bury my head in the weeds that I’m pulling, and I’m being forced to look around the garden and really take it in I can see that some part need more help than just a deep weeding.  Some parts need rethinking. All gardens need rethinking sometimes, or at least parts of them do, and being forced to stop and really look at your garden from a far, instead of being immersed in it working, lets you see what’s working and what’s failing.

August has always been the best time to see what’s what in the garden. And to make plans. At almost any other time, if you see something that’s off you’ll probably grab a shovel and do a little rearranging, or remove the offender and put something else in it’s place, but in August most of what we are doing in the garden is making sure all our new additions have plenty of water and trying to keep the weeds at bay. In August, when you notice something is off you need to make a note and address it later, and that’s a skill that some of us don’t really have.

I’m an immediate gratification kind of a girl. Not a sit and ponder on it person. If one plant is being swamped by another, or if a color combination is jarring and out of place, I'll address it immediately. Right now I can’t, and in August, you really shouldn’t anyway – it’s too hot to transplant, so I’m getting a seriously long overdue lesson in observing and planning. Luckily I can still take notes, and I’m doing so with a vengeance. I’m filling up pages in my garden moleskins with what I hope won’t be too cryptic notes and scribbles for this fall, next spring, and the garden in general.

These a couple of the things you should think about when taking notes.

What parts of the garden are bugging you the most? Or what do you have to do before it makes you crazy? For me it’s the Joe pyeweed on the east side of the ex-veggie garden that needs to be transplanted, as does the Ironweed on the west side of the garage. And I need to dig up and toss almost all my daylilies. After having been eaten by deer for so long previously they’ve all reverted to one that is a funny double orange with a red throat. At least that’s what I think has happened, I can’t image I ever choose of planted these garish things. They all need to be ripped out and discarded and replaced with the peach and pink and cream colored ones I started with ages ago. There’s a couple that need to be saved and I need to mark those with red ribbon so they are saved, but there’s a lot to be discarded fearlessly. The ostrich ferns need to be eradicated from under the apple trees and the wild plums more completely.

What part of the garden needs a little fiddling? The asparagus by the garage is swamping the gooseberry next to it, so one of them needs to move, and the plain green hostas I got as freebies need to be thinned and transplanted into various other shady spots so that there’s more room for variation in foliage and texture in the bed where they presently huddle. There’s a big gaping spot under the viburnums in the front west side bed which needs filling and the bed under the pear tree needs something medium sized right in front of the truck and behind the astrantia, with something that will pair well with phlox. That bed also needs to not be allowed to fill in with Dame’s Rocket next year as it’s removal is too destructive and noticeable. There’s also a rogue hydrangea that’s popped up by the Heller’s Japanese holly by the basement door that needs a proper home and those hollies need to be pruned back so that you can actually use the back door to get in and out of the kitchen.

Would things look better it they were pruned?  Would you get more light? I‘ve scribbled notes about the beech tree that we keep lifting up and a few magnolias I want to shape as well as on those things that need to be cut back hard this year, like the rose of sharon behind the chicken coop or perhaps even removed entirely, like the jetbead that is the rose of sharon’s neighbor. Then there are shrubs and trees that need to be cut back so you can travel throughout the garden. I’ve got a whole page of notes on those.

When you look out your windows what do you see? From most of my windows the view is pretty good except for the two little lime hydrangeas and two roses in the front bed that need to be dug up and moved from the front of the bed to about halfway back. This is only because I had to transplant an enormous corylopsis from that middle spot to the back of the property, but by doing so I threw off the balance in that bed so the front feels too tall and heavy and needs these four shrubs centered where the corylopsis used to be. I sometime also use photographs as a way of taking notes. And as a way of helping me remember. Now that we all have a phone in our cell phones, it’s easy to photograph the view from my computer so that I can see exactly where I need to add in more late summer color and the spot by those hydrangeas so that next spring I’ll know exactly how high I need the shade tolerant plant I’m choosing for that spot to grow. It was a great tool this spring when I finally shot places in the garden that I want to add bulbs, and much easier to refer than notes are when locating exact placements.

Is there anything you have to walk and find or do you see the whole thing in one shebang? I have an entire perennial border that you have to trek to the back forty to see. It’s fantastic. There’s a picnic table back there as a reward for having slogged the whole way back, but it should be nicer, a better table and seating. And while I’m on the subject of visually attractive objects, wouldn’t it be nice to have sculptures in the garden? Ornaments you only see by walking through the entire garden, or mobiles hanging from some of the trees. Or more benches so I could actually go to a part of the garden as a destination and not just keep passing through on my way through the thing.

Does your garden have a focal point? Do you need one? I have an ancient crab apple that serves as a focal point for the long view down my garden, and I’m lucky in that I’m planted out all my neighbors for most of the season, so no matter where I’m sitting or standing or walking I have something interesting to look at, that’s either giving me a place to rest my eyes or inviting my to come closer and give it a closer look. My compost pile is the only unsightly thing in the garden, but I kind of dig it and it’s really not too exposed at all.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Does your garden have too much variety or not enough? I’ve been good here, buying things in masses as opposed to one at a time. It’s meant that I’ve had to pass up a couple of interesting plants, but it also means the garden beds look more coherent, less a mish mash of random cool things. And being a plantaholic means there’s no way my garden doesn’t have enough variety, it’s genetically impossible.

When you pull in with your car is the view always attractive or is it really nice only at one point of the season and the rest of the year it’s boring? Most of the time this bed looks pretty nifty, but there’s a supposedly variegated dogwood that has reverted to being almost entirely green by the front driveway needs to just be ripped out and disposed of. Not because it’s not a lovely tree, it is, but it’s taking up a lot of real estate in that front bed without being interesting for enough seasons. And although the path to the kitchen from the cars works perfectly, the Limelight hydrangea and the Lemon Queen heliopsis flop onto it too often when it rains. These they need to be moved somewhere else.

Is there anything that just isn’t working anymore? Actual the bed with the heliopsis mentioned above, unfortunately, needs to be entirely rethought. This bed holds my hummingbirds’ monarda but is swamping under its onslaught, what was once a hint of red is now a seething mass and although fun for the hummers, it’s slightly overwhelming for me. It’s also not that attractive a plant after it blooms. And it’s in prime, walk past it twice every single day real estate.  In the spring the bed is delightful, although could use more bulbs, but when I compare mid spring photos with mid august photos it’s obvious that there needs to be a big overhaul here.

The same thing needs to happen in the ex-vegetable garden. That garden is gorgeous right through June, but as July barreled in and all of last years forgotten and unharvested potatoes started really getting going, it went feral. I knew it was coming, but I didn’t address it this past fall, just threw tulip bulbs everywhere and again this spring I neglected to try and get it under control so now I officially have chaos. I don’t need any notes or photographs to tell me this, because when you have to bushwhack your way in to find your swallowed up pepper plants it’s easy to see have far everything has gotten away from me. I normally can ignore this problem by ripping out spent cilantro (coriander anyone?) and using twine or yarn to pull plant up and off the paths, but this year I can’t even begin to make headway. I certainly can’t tie twine without my right hand and where in past years I’d start by harvesting the potatoes which would at least give me a little breathing room, this year I’m having a hard time figuring out how to use a spade or a garden fork with only one arm.

So I’m using my imagination instead. I’m visualizing how it would look with a larger path and a paved area for seating in the center. I’m scribbling down that the fritillarias need more sun and that there’s a nice transplantable daylily in there, but most of my imagination is captured by the possibilities of change. Should it only really be about roses? Will I be willing to stop sneaking in vegetables after swearing off them for the last two years and then caving in?

And then from there I’m flowing outwards. The bed with the lavender which is so terribly, terribly sandy, should I make that a place for edibles and rework all the soil or is the idea of walking back there on a daily basis laughable when I don’t even pluck cucumbers with any regularity that are within cat throwing distance of the house right now. Perhaps I need to simplify back there, and move the perennials back there up front and fill their empty spaces with shrubs that have become way too thuggish upfront. Or maybe that’s where all my extra red monarda from will go.

And then there’s the bed under the wisteria. The wisteria has become so dense that the only thing the plants in that bed are doing is suffering. And the paths are getting too narrow, so should I replant the whole thing or should I just suck it up and try and dig out the wisteria? Is that super crazy?

Oh dear, I’m starting to feel entirely overwhelmed, maybe I need to put my head down between my knees and breathe, but wait, what’s that feeling I have deep, deep inside me? Huh? That feels a little like excitement, and a teasing of possibility. So maybe this not gardening thing isn’t going to be all bad.

Paige Patterson hasn’t held a trowel in 6 weeks and is going through withdrawal.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Jewels in the garden

Yesterday, while my husband and I were sitting on our kitchen porch reviewing the day as it started to slowly pink up at the edges, we had eight hummingbird sightings. Now, don’t know exactly how many resident jewels we have flinging themselves across my flower beds, but we did spot two males dueling over the rights to the Jacob Kline monarda just moments after a female was feeding right around the corner, so I know there are at least three individuals.   

I am a hummingbird junkie and once you have your first hummingbird visitor, all you want is more – so I’m always trying to find ways to coax these beauties into dropping by, or moving in permanently. And although feeders are certainly an option when it comes to attracting these beauties, there’s a few things you need to understand about hummingbird behavior to get as many as you can. We know that the name hummingbird comes from the purring or vibrating sound of their wings beating almost 90 times a second, but that's not the only thing about a humming birds that's speedy. They also have an accelerated heartbeat, a incredibly rapid breathing rate and a high body temperature, which means they burn an amazing number of calories each moment so hummingbirds needing to eat often and voraciously. They have an impressively long tongue with which they lick their food at a rate of up to 13 licks per second, sucking up almost half their body weight in nectar each day, nectar being their primary food source along with tree sap, insects and pollen, so feeders with their artificial nectar might sound like a good way to attract them, but there's one other fact about hummingbirds that might point you in a different direction.

Hummingbirds don't like to share their food.

They're territorial, so even though they are only about 3 ¾ inches long and weigh about the same as a couple of  paperclips, they'll defend their territories with the aggression and determination of much larger critters. I’ve seen male pursue other males for hours at a time, and even go after other larger birds. They're fearless. I know those video clips on Facebook with throngs of hummers crowding around a feeder makes us all want to run out and invest in a few dozen, but in my experience it’s rare that a male hummingbird will share his food sources willingly. And since each male demands a territory of about a quarter acre, having all your feeders clustered on the porch so you can see these beauties might be fun for you, but it’s going to be stressful for the birds.  At my house, if there are two males in the same space they will dive bomb each other making sharp chirps (playing chicken so to speak) until one gives up and flies away. The victor will then return to sip in all his solitary glory. So instead of a bouquet of feeders containing liquified processed sugar and sometimes even red dye all of which also have to be cleaned religiously, and which (in my experience) hummingbirds don’t want to share –– feeders which also leak all over the porch attracting not just ants and bees, but vicious, nasty, attacking yellow jackets, I’m a proponent of the planted approach.   

The planting approach is simple, just fill your property with plants that are ladened with nectar and place them all over the whole yard. I did, and now with my 2.5 acres, I've hypothetically created room for up to 10 males and their families. Doesn’t that sound like a lot more fun? I already mentioned monarda as one of my favorite hummingbird attractions, but before I give you a plant list, I’d like to clear up a little misconception. Yes hummingbirds are attracted to and love red flowers; it's a color that they can "see" from miles away, so they're super attracted to those plants; but they also will drink from any heavily nectared plant. So certainly, add some red plants, but don't be limited to only scarlet, crimson, ruby and cerise. Yes they love my enormous clump of Jacob Kline monarda, but they also think my Marshall's Delight and Purple Rooster are pretty glorious as well.  

Monarda (Bee Balm) has the top spot on my list of hummingbird attractors, so if there’s only room for one more plant in your yard, this should be it, but if you want to guarantee these iridescent visitors return to your garden year after year, and you have the room, there’s a plethora of plant possibilities I can recommend.  

The entire salvia family will satiate hummingbirds as will any weigela you decide will add beauty to a shrub border. I am partial to the annual salvia called Black and Blue, you I've had them feed from both annual and perennial varieties. Personally, I have about 12 or so weigela scattered around my property, but I am sort of mad for the Sonic series as their ability to rebloom is fairly impressive. I'm not sure that they are as nectar rich as some of the old fashioned cultivars (they're fairly new to my garden) so if you want to be sure you're getting the biggest bang for your buck get a cultivar that's been around for a while. What both these plants have in common is a tubular flower which is a perfect fit for the long bill of the hummingbird in it's quest for the nectar buried deep inside each bloom.  

Since hummingbirds tend to show up and hang out in the garden from Mother's Day through Labor day, it's important that you choose plants that will be available through their entire visit – another reason annuals are always on my humming bird list. Fuchsias are a necessity, so I've always got a few stuck in pots in shadier spots around the garden and shrimp plants are also something they go crazy for, although I'm not such a huge fan. I prefer petunias, lantana, snapdragons and nicotiana, the last two of which I stick randomly into any bed where I have room, As an aside, once you have nicotianas they will tend to self seed willy nilly (if, of course you don't weed up the seedlings) and I also collect and save my own seeds to toss about with abandon in the spring.  

Columbine, hostas, foxgloves, heuchera are all fabulous perennials to incorporate into your planting beds, and if you have a spot for a honeysuckle to ramble through, please plant at least one. I have one at the rear of my property and a trumpet vine that’s finally throwing itself over my porch roof for whomever has staked out their territory by the house. When planting I always advise massing plants and repeating them throughout the garden to make sure your plantings don’t look too hodge podge, but your hummer friends also want to visit a patch of the same species (three or more plants) to really get a good quantity of nectar. Cardinal flowers are a perfect plant in heavier soil, and they will create their own clump (as the monarda do of course) so those are definitively a hummingbird have to have.

In the shrub realm, flowering quince is a good early plant while butterfly bush is a great way to end the summer and clethra is sometimes even given the common name Hummingbird Plant. I've been told that the Red Buckeye is a good hummingbird magnet, but I can't speak from experience since it's one of the few trees I don't have on my property. In an interesting aside, hummingbirds can only perch on their feet, they can’t use them to stand on a flat surface, nor can they walk, so it’s also important to choose plants they will feel comfortable resting in for those few moments when their wings aren’t going or when they decide to make a nest.

I’m still hoping to find a hummingbird nest somewhere on my property. The nests are tiny and almost impossibly hard to spot, with eggs the size of jellybeans, and I have yet to find one in any of my trees or shrubs, but I’m continuing to look. I believe there must be at least one here somewhere since the number visitors seems to be increases yearly. I like to think I’m feeding generations. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden website gives a great and sometimes forgotten tip on creating a hummingbird friendly environment when they suggest we include some fuzzy plants in our planting plans. Hummingbirds like to line their nest with soft plant fibers, and according the BBG, two of their favorites are the fuzzy stem of the cinnamon fern and pussy willows. They also suggest we let  some thistle and dandelion go to seed just for the fluffy, down like fuzz that’s so attractive to the as nest-building materials for the hummers in your yard.  

I like thinking that the dancing seeds of dandelions are making tiny little beds more snuggly. It’s one of the best excuses I’ve ever come up with for leaving the dandelions in my lawn. That and the fact that they’re also dream food for bees.

Paige Patterson hasn’t been able to weeds for over three weeks and her garden is out of control

Monday, June 13, 2016

A gift of weeds

June was an extraordinary month for roses. They were off the hook. People keep coming up to me and telling me how amazing their roses are and I’m loath to crush their spirits, but this year everyone’s roses were incredible. I chalk it up to a very dry winter and spring and therefore far fewer opportunities for black spot to do it’s decimating dance, but also the mildness of the weather meant fewer delicate beauties had a chance to do the dieback and death thing. But now it’s July and if you haven’t been vigilant the weeds are fairly impressive as well.

I gauge my weeding success by the garden cartful. Tuesday I had four – well technically five, but I left the cart in the garden as there was still room for a few more green bodies before it got dragged to the compost pile. Today I have almost a hundred ferns to get into the ground, but first I must weed. I’m not big on weeding. As I’ve written before I try and plant so densely that the weeds don’t have room to establish, much less grow and bloom, but I let my hesperis (Dame’s Rocket) run rampant this spring and now as I rip each collapsed clump out of the soil, I have smothered perennials, and therefore quite a few gaping holes to deal with. But I’m fine with it. It’s just an opportunity to buy more plants.

Weeding can be an almost meditative activity if you allow it to be, as you must focus when you are weeding. If not, you will rip good plants out with the bad, especially if you let the weeds get out of control. So it’s best to do a little weeding everyday. And those of us who do, are rewarded with a repetitive activity that helps you learn to be totally engaged in the present. Totally focused on what you are doing. Being in the moment, not thinking about what you should have done, or what you can do in the future, but concentrating on the actions your hands are taking is the best way I’ve found to relax and let go. Not of the root I’m teasing out of the soil, but of the day. It is a good thing to focus. To be present enough to see which stalks are good, which are bad, which needs both hands and which needs just a little finger scuffle to be removed. Some roots need to come out completely, some roots can just have their foliage snipped off and some roots are actually useful. Useful you ask? What weed is useful? Well technically, the dandelion works as a wick for calcium, bringing it up through the soil to the leaves of the plant, which if left to decay will release the nutrient back to the surface of the soil for other plants to take up.

Hmm? Not that interested in letting dandelions take over your lawn and garden beds? I understand. However if, like me, you have bees, you will have learned how much they love and appreciate the golden suns of the dandelions flowers as a food source.  I have become tolerant of dandelions, although I do try and pop off the heads before they become the lion manes of seeded fluff. I’m somewhat successful, but I still have quite a few dandelions, and I accept that. It’s one of the most Zen things I do.

Gardening has taught me to accept imperfections and to enjoy chance encounters. I have a purple cleome that in now blooming along with Lauren Grape Poppies in a place I don’t remember seeding either plant, but they are beautiful. They clash somewhat with the scarlet Jacob Kline monarda that dominates the bed where they’ve decided to grow, but so does the unnamed ripe peach colored rose that has determined the middle of the monarda patch is the only place in my garden where it will thrive. It’s not a color theme I would have chosen, but all four of these plants’ successes make me happy. And that happiness helps me breathe.

Learning to breathe, learning to be, accepting the garden for what it is instead of focusing on what it could be; these are all lessons that have helped me in all different moments of life, and if I remember to think of them when facing stressful situations, I handle myself better. I have learned, the hard way, that if you go out to the garden to weed and you are upset or angry or frustrated, and you don’t leave those emotions by the “garden gate” so to speak, you fail. You rip up the peas when trying to remove jewelweed, you get handfuls of nepeta instead of creeping Charlie. Those emotions do not work when weeding. You have to stop holding on to them so tight. You have to put down the wrongs of the day, the week, the year and instead pick up a trowel.

This year I’m frustrated by many things in life, as I am almost every year, but I’m not bringing those feelings out among the roses. The weeds themselves could be another source of frustration if I let them, but the felling of accomplishment, of a job well done when I rediscover the cucumber that has been buried beneath pokeweed and black locust seedling, is a feeling that is too lovely to deny.
I am embracing my weeds and their removal as a gift from the universe, the chance to feel joy from clearing an entire bed of nut sedge, the pleasure of astrantia, long hidden finally getting a chance to extend itself up to the sun. The height with which my compost pile is building up to the sky is a visual reinforcement of accomplishment.  And for that I am grateful. Not that I’m volunteering to come weed your garden anytime soon. I have plenty of my own weeds. In my garden and in the rest of my life, but I am grabbing them by the roots and removing them, sometimes careful, something with a ferocious vigor, but with lately, with more and more success.

Paige Patterson is running out of room in her garden but that hasn’t stopped any plants from jumping into her car.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The naming of plants

No one knows how to pronounce the word clematis. I pronounce it KLEM-UH-TIS but many others pronounce it KLEE-MAH-TIS. The truth is, there’s no real, 100% correct way to pronounce it, as we have no one who still really speaks Latin to correct our pronunciation the way Parisians do when I try and use their native tongue to get directions to Giverney or to purchase a baguette. The fact is, that unless you are reversing the syllables or dropping them (as I sometimes am guilty of doing) it is always better to ask for a plant by its botanic name instead of its common one, even if you mangle the Latin a little in the process.

The reason is simple. Plants have far too many common names and they are super confusing. Doesn’t a garden filled with Our Lady in a Boat, Chinese Pants, Venus’s Car, Lyre Flower, Bleeding Heart and Lady’s Locket sound super? Like a fabulous cottage garden filled with the most wonderful flowers right? Unfortunately, such a garden would just be a solid mass of Dicentra spectabilis, since those are all names by which it is known.

When we make plant tags at the nursery we always try and put both the Latin and the common name on the tags, but the large number of common names can sometimes make that a little complicated. Salvia splendens ‘Bonfire’ could be commonly called Bonfire Scarlet Sage. Or it could be Bonfire Splendid Sage. Or even Bonfire Tropical Sage. With a common name all three words are capitalized and the name starts with the cultivar (without the single quotes used to indicate it’s a cultivar in the Latin name) and is followed by the most common, common name, each word of which is capitalized, i.e. Scarlet Sage.

So who determines which common name to use? Well at most nurseries, it’s the person making the tags, so when I was entering the information, I would use the word Hosta for both the common and the Latin name of that plant, but technically I’d be wrong. The correct common name is Plantain Lily, although Funkier is used to be the more common, common name. But in common usage hosta is the word all our gardeners use. Should we use Coral Bells or Alumroot when referring to plants in the heuchera family? I never call artemesia Wormwood, I just call it Artemesia, the same way I refer to forsythia, magnolia, hydrangeas, and clematis by their Latin names only. I’d never call a gingko a Maidenhair Tree but I’ve do call aruncus Goatsbeard.  So it’s a dilemma.

Not that figuring out the Latin names is any easier. You would think the professionals growing these plants would use a consistent source of information to be the reference guides but in the world of perennials, annuals and herbs, but there doesn’t seem to be one. Allan Armitage, a god in horticultural circles, tends to be the most up to date on the perennials and annuals, but even he has said it is impossible to keep up in a printed form as names and cultivars keep changing, growing and expanding.

He has written the textbook on perennials, and another on annuals, biennials and half-hardy perennials and we treat both as bibles in the Marders reference library, but there are too many plants that are not classified within them. The Royal Horticultural A-Z  Encyclopedia of garden plants is also a good source, but it too is not that up to date. And online listings don’t really help either – much to my distress the Brooklyn Botanic Garden uses the Andersen Horticultural Library's Plant Information Online, which only uses the first part of the Latin binomial.

“Wait, wait, wait Paige, what the heck is a binomial?” I hear you ask.  I’m so glad you asked.

A plant’s botanical name consists of two words, and is therefore referred to as a "binomial." The first word represents the larger group the plant belongs to, the genus, and its first letter is always capitalized. The second word is the species and it is always lowercase. A plant’s binomial name should be written in full but lots of nurseries and growers and plant breeders don’t bother.

Most growers actually sell the above-mentioned salvia as Salvia Bonfire, without bothering with the single quotes or the second half of the binomial.  Which makes me crazy. Not because I’m a control freak (although I am a tad) but because when you see a list of plants to buy from and only the first part of the name is used, you really have no idea what you’re getting. I happen to love Salvia nemorosas and loathe Salvia verticillatas, so luckily, because I am a plant junkie, I know that ‘Hypnotic Purple’ and ‘Salute Pink’ are salvias I want to try but that I can skip ‘Endless Love’ – but does a regular, non-plantaholic know the difference? I think nemorosas are significantly better plants, but if a first time gardener buys a plant named Salvia ‘Endless Love’ and is disappointed it’s the way verticillatas look and perform, they’re going to think all salvias are sort of blah and are going to miss out of some excellent plants.

Other then the basic binomial a Latin name can include subspecies, varieties and cultivars. A subspecies (preceded by the abbreviation "subsp.") is a geographically separate population within a species that is almost, but not quite, a separate species.  A botanical variety (preceded by "var.") is a distinct variant occurring in the same populations as ordinary examples of a species. Both of these additions are really not necessary for the home gardener to know, so it’s up for debate as to whether they should go onto our tags. If you know plants, you know that sometime they’re helpful but very few people in the business of retailing plants use them, including most of the vendors we work with in the perennial and annual world. I know, I know, I hear you yawning but hear me out.

A cultivar (CULTIvated VARiety), or selection, is a type that is not naturally occurring. These have been bred or crossed or chosen for some special characteristic. Cultivar names are a word or words in a modern language (NOT Latin) set off in single quotes and capitalized, but not italicized, such as Salvia splendens ‘Bonfire’.

Hybrids, or crosses between different species, are given unique names that are preceded with an x, indicating that this plant is a hybrid between two species — for example, Salvia x superba is a hybrid of S. sylvestris and S. villicaulis. Sometimes that "x" inadvertently gets dropped along the way; this plant is often listed as Salvia superba. And I’m not positive that many of the people who sell us these plants even know for sure when something is a cross or not, and even less know what that cross is.  At the nursery we can decide on having the x or taking it out. I tend to leave it in but I am a maniac.

Another problem we have is that when botanists make taxonomic name changes as a result of advances in botanical knowledge (e.g. the Chrysanthemum genus was recently split into eight different genera, including Dendranthema, Tanacetum, and Leucanthemum) it may take years for the horticultural industry to adopt them, but should we be up to date with the changes? Should our tags have the new names? And will this help or confuse our customers? We could add the new name to the old name with a slash i.e. Chrysanthemum/Dendranthema but some growers will use the old name and some the new – this is the case with Actea/Cimicifuga for example. Cimicifuga has had this new name for years, but very few people, including some awfully good gardeners, use it or know it.  

Do you know Solenostemon scutellarioides? That’s the new name for some of our good friends Coleus blumei. I’m not going to be able to remember that; to be honest, I didn’t even know the second name of Coleus was blumei, and when they shelved the name coleus not all of the plants became scutellarioides. Instead a number of them were moved into the plectranthus category. And of course, to bring us full circle, my adored Dicentra spectabilis has now got a new Latin name as well. Its Lamprocapnos spectabilis – I mean come on, are they kidding me? There’s no way I’m not going to mangle that.  But I’m going to still beg you to try and use the Latin name, if only to prevent you from picking up the annual Chinese Forget-Me-Nots (Cynoglossum amiable) and planting them all in your shade garden expecting them to self seed into a big carpet of blue Forget-Me-Nots which is actually an entirely different species of plant. What you want is the Myosotis sylvatica –  the word Myosotis coming from the Greek word for mouse’s ear, and although the flowers look remarkably similar they’re very little else that about them that is.

Paige Patterson says there’s no such thing as too many hydrangeas – thus the ‘After Midnight’ in her car.