Letting Go - An Old Garden Revisted

Again this last week I found myself about to drive past my former house and garden. Though I knew what I was approaching, I was not prepared. The sight of it, even in the dark, startled me. The curtain of illusion was thrown back. I was free-falling in mortality. My old garden was gone!

Gardening, like so many things, is a performance art. We think we have created something permanent - stone, soil, seed. But the world is built around flux. If not this year...decade..century...millennium, then in the next, all is certain to recycle. When the Mayflower landed, the New England countryside was primeval forest. By the 1800's one could ride the stagecoach from Boston to New York without seeing a tree. Now in the 21st century, the trees once again clothe the local landscape. Change is inevitable. So one might as well accept at the start that it is in the doing of a thing that our human lives are fulfilled. That is not to say that I don't enjoy a restoration project as much as the next person. But I will die happy if I can remain part of the performance, even if all there is left is the breath.

My former house and garden were in an old part of an established New England town. Originally Victorian in color and theme, it moldered away under layers of years and paint to the point of rot. Shrubs, hedges and trees overgrew, as they were originally planted to close to the buildings. After years of labor, terraced rock gardens were installed, the Victorian house colors restored, and shrubs and small trees lined the street side for privacy. There were collections of exquisite wildflowers, from double trilliums to Streptopus roseus on the side of the house. Now there is a decorator yellow house with green grass manicured all the way to the street. A passerby can look directly into the living room from the road. A little outdoor grill sits off the front steps. I am sure the new owners are very satisfied to have the additional mowing chores.

One thing they did leave was a rather nice Magnolia stellata. And of course the performance of the garden still remembered lingers in my mind. It was very satisfying. To give you a peek, I have reprinted a glimpse of my life and the gardens there:

A Perfect Summer Morning

After a summer night of rain, the sun peeks through the mist of the morning. It is hard to tell how the day will blossom as the light slinks up the bedroom wall. You almost feel the mist upon your face as you gaze out over the garden.

Eager to meet with the day, you take your cereal bowl to sit on the stone steps at the side of the rock bedecked slope. Color is the first thing to greet you. The blues of summer gentians, lagodechiana and septemfida, are full blown now. Their royalty sparkles in the steamy light. Underneath your legs, Erinus alpinus olivieri, unlike its plain muddied sister, clears your brain's palate like some refreshing fruit sorbet. In another garden, on another day, this has been called E. a. 'Dr. Hanele'. New to the garden, it was an early spring division from a friend. The leaf and habit looked very usual. The clear pink color has moved it to a class ahead.


Several weeks ago we harvested the vegetable gardens. Turns out this was a stellar year for carrots and beets- two lily trays of carrots and one of beets. Some critter had already started harvesting the beet crop before we got there. Probably half a lily tray was wasted, from our point of view, when the critter gnawed the top half of many beets. I can see him rolling backward after chomping his way through it. A smile would be dripping beet juice as he rested on his fully satisfied belly for a snooze. Peter Rabbit lookout- this is "way not cool!"

For the past few seasons we found a way to preserve that fresh-picked crunch over the winter and well into summer of the next year: culturing. There is no heat during the process other than when I clean the jars. The vegetable never loses its pizazz, like conventional canning. Now this is not for everyone's taste - just ask at my workplace. The smell drives some people to the point of uncivilized inappropriate gestures. And surprisingly it is some of the people who extol sauerkraut. Let me put it this way, I hesitate to offer it to anyone used to standard American fare. One of our children loves it, one doesn't mind if we eat it, the others do not care for it at all. Both Rod & I really enjoy it - we use it as a relish for meats, a topping for oatmeal, a hearty salad addition, a side for just about anything you might want for a meal. When Rod cooks for himself, he need only grill a piece of meat, then add his cultured vegetables from the fridge. So to you adventurous souls, I present a great way to put up the bounty of beets and carrots from the garden. Add to that, for all you concerned with your girth, it is one of the foods that help curb carb cravings. Yes!

Washing the carrots from the garden
For a culture starter I usually buy a box or two from Body Ecology. Yes, this is a lot like making yogurt. The box comes with several packets of the culture, specifically intended to synergize with the vegetables. And of course, it's good for synergy with our guts. The labels reads anti-gut disbyosis, like IBS, Crohn's Disease and Colitis. Sign me up to keep all that at bay. And culturing vegetables is not a complicated process, quicker than home canning, with a result that is fresh tasting as well as good for you. First you wake up the Lactobacillus with a little warm honey drink. Then you mix it with the shredded vegetables. Keep it in a warm room for a few days and let the bacteria do the job. Fermenting.

Rod cutting off the carrot tops
We start with cleaning the kitchen and sterilizing all the tools - bottles, lids, bowls, ladles, et all. Then we brush the vegetables clean in the sink, removing all the bad spots, tops, and gnarls, if any. Rod or I then push the beets or carrots through the food processor. Years ago I decided to get a used commercial food processor. It makes matchstick carrots in seconds flat. This makes processing large batches from the garden a few evening's work. That is all we put into this year's batches - two evenings after dinner during the week.

Filling the jars
There is a special white stool I keep nearby the kitchen for this occasion. Next to this I  place a low small table (in our case an old chowkie leftover from the children's school days) up close. I feel like the dairy maid a'churning. To prepare, I mix the warmed activated culture with water and a few stalks of celery in the blender and add from a list of possible ingredients such as garlic, ginger, or herbs. This I pour over the julienned vegetables in my large stock pot. Next comes the pounding. I have found my baker's professional plastic rolling pin to be the best tool. It is easy on the hand and really makes a good mash. After twenty minutes or so, Rod usually takes a turn. One can also make cultured butter this way.

Packing the jar
Then I pack the sterilized jars, mashing down the ingredients until near the top. For the last inch or so, I roll logs of cabbage and press them down. This helps keep the juices from overflowing while bubbling. I cap the jars, wash and stack them near the sink. I will leave them out to bubble for 5 days in the warm kitchen. After that, it's off to the extra refrigerator downstairs. We pull a jar or two as needed to keep in the main fridge. Oh-delicious!

Jars a'Culturing
There are so many variations to the recipes that we usually try something different in each batch: gingered carrots; garlic carrots with dill; cinnamon carrots with ginger. You get the picture. My daughter does this same process with cabbage, but without the packets of culture. Cabbage has a natural proclivity to ferment with beneficial bacteria. I will have to plant extra cabbage next year - maybe red and savoy. That would make a pretty jar!

Tools of the Trade


Luckily, prior to the onslaught of snow and sleet last Sunday, I had a premonition to move my tool bucket to shelter. (Yes, there was a deliberate mention of those cold "s" words. We think of snow at Thanksgiving. But this year-of-the-prolonged-summer is melding quickly into one of prolonged winter, methinks.) Usually the bucket sits on the front porch, handy for any impromptu gardening.  But the prior day I planted "the last" seedlings of the season - some Primula auricula for the west side of the sax bed. The wind was brutal as it often is in fall. After that operation  I was chilled to the bone, and so, prepared to put the bucket away for the season. I always keep a bit of crushed granite in the bottom, available at any alpine planting, mulching or weeding situation. This I dump for winter storage of the pail. Why not a plastic pail, one might ask. When I am working, all the tools are usually out and in use. It is a quick trip to the pile for a scoop of crushed granite for more mulch with a metal pail. And the metal rim precludes even the need of a shovel. Plastic just does not hold up.

My most favored tools are a set of brick jointers made by Marshalltown here in the US. As Rod watched me struggle with traditional gardening tools while planting tight crevices, he got an idea. He offered me these masonry hand tools. I have not given them back! Not only can you pack tight places, but also dig and scoop just about everywhere. Yes, most crevices are a roomy couple of inches wide. But more often, some piece of the facing stone comes a little closer to its mate, even kissing at times. These tools make all the difference for getting deep into the crevice. They come in varying sizes, from 3/8" or 3/4" on one end to 1/2" or 7/8" on the other. They are approximately 10 1/2 " long. The S-curve fits them nicely to the hand. To find them, just look at your local hardware store. Even the big chain stores carry them for sale. Talk to a  local mason.

The next star in the arsenal of productivity enhancers is one I acquired many years ago.  White Flower Farm used to sell this as a swoe. Now, they sell a stand-up, long handled version so-called. I have it too, for the vegetable garden summer weeding detail. It is good for keeping after german-weed (local name for Galinsoga ciliata) before it gets over a few inches high.  But it is not nearly as handy a tool as its short handled cousin, which does duty in all the gardens, from the vegetables patch to the perennial beds to the rock garden. There is nothing like it for getting the odd dandelion seedling or tubby yellow-dock root (Rumex crispus). Before Rod graced me with the set of brick jointer tools, this tool did most of the duty in the crevice garden.

Snow Stake Marker
For the new crevice garden plantings two tools were standouts. A length of rebar was an easy way to pack in the crushed granite from the ground up. There was just enough weight to make the repetitive tamping process speed along. Round and smooth to hold, its flat end worked the crevice joints with ease. Other uses in the various gardens include a fast-set post for roping off areas for grass seeding, a roller for larger stones, a string hanger to lay out linear rows, noisemaker on a rock to move out the snakes from said rockwork, oh, yes, and reinforcing concrete. The second tool is a fiberglass snow stake for the driveway. What's that? You think I am kidding? The brick jointers are good, but not when the stone crevice is over a foot deep. This is the tool for those tight places way down under. It's perfect for those tight spots 3 feet in, where a stick would break, and the rebar is to large.

The hand trowel, of course, is essential to any garden tool bucket. My taste always runs to those with wooden handles and a forged steel blade. It is just that much easier on the hand. (I do keep a few plastic handled ones in the plunge bed year round. That way I never need to go look for one - especially handy if it is early or late in the season. But sand is not difficult to excavate.) The wooden handled ones are comfortable for prolonged work anytime. My hand does not sweat during the heat of summer as it does while using the plastic handled ones for any length of time. I like a bit of a sharp point on the blade too. Sometimes the soil here is compacted, from the clay or sod or such. A sharp point dispatches all resistance and saves the wrist from impact. Also the wide forged blade is of perfect size for making short work of a job. It gets it done now! Naturally they are worth having the handles replaced when the wood deteriorates. But there are inevitably losses due to oversight. I have not seem any lately for sale like this, so always check tag sales in the area.

I keep two sets of hand clippers in the pot. Depending on my mood and hand agility, I reach for one or the other. The anvil pruner is a little heavier in the hand, but is great for routine work. (Mine is a vintage product, again available at most local tag sales. I should note, Goshen is up the valley from the old Seymour Smith manufacturing plant, now defunct, which probably accounts for the plethora of goodies at all the garage sales.) As my hand tires from a long stint of pruning, I will reach for the Florian rachet-cut pruner, which multiplies my hand strength "by 700%". Why don't I always user the Florians? Well, ratcheting is a double work operation. And when the Florians are not enough, there is always the lopper.
Seymour Smith Snap-cut
Florian Rachet-cut
Snap-cut Timberline Loppers
Once in a while I need a weeding tool like a swoe but with a sharp point. Mind you, this is just the odd time out. But definitely worth its weight to tote in the pail is a Japanese weeding sickle. It's the tip that counts.
Japanese Weeding Sickle
And rounding out the essential pail is the garden hand fork. Lifting that misplaced sax or Primula auricula is easy enough with this. Mine was acquired when Smith & Hawken sold out. But they are available.
Smith & Hawken Hand Fork
So now you have it - what I carry from site to site. These tools are handy helpers. There is a shed full of others, but these are the "out-front" best.

Garden Visit

The Garden Conservancy has filled a niche in American life with glimpses of fine gardens, enough for every perspective. From large acreage estates to simple plots, one can see what's happening in the neighborhood. So when my friend Juliet asked if I wanted to take a ride to the Steinhardt open garden to see the Japanese maples, I agreed at once. How better to see fall's palette than a hillside of the manicured maples!

The ride down was pleasant, with increasingly better sightings of understory color as we progressed south. As we parked we were closely observed by the resident camels...yes I said camels. I can't imagine what the caravan thought of the hundreds of humans who descended next to their ring. One in particular kept an eye on us while looking aloof and cool. Children were grouped in competition, staring back at the train, who were flanked by a zeal of skittish zebra.
We check out the rock garden first, of course, but quickly meandered on to the maples, which blazed across the pond. Clearly the genius of the place was in that hillside.

As we meandered up the hillside, we saw the understory reveling in its turn in the sun. The canopy of the forest had shed its foliage sometime earlier in the week. The small maples were now center stage.
The moss bridge was quite interesting. I noticed they placed a butyl liner underneath the moss, then added a layer of moss and wood steps right out of Tolkien.While it looked fragile, it handled most of the hillside traffic. I noticed one woman with a stroller watchfully stomping on it. Then she scooped up her child to clamor across quickly in case it gave way.
And everywhere the eye might rove, there were the small maples. Nothing whispers "fall" like a breeze through the understory Japanese maples.
Many of the trees were festooned with Hydrangea anomala petiolaris. It was as if they pulled on fuzzy leg warmers. The soft breeze kept the forest fully in movement.
Of course there was a classic salute to Japan with stream, bridge and maple. I started to cross the bridge, but it was too slippery. Maybe moisture from the stream clings since there is no direct sun to dry it?
One delight of Japanese maples are the wide palette of colors as the leaves turn and drop. Yes, one can collect specimens with variously colored margins that present contrast all summer. I recall seeing a stand-out assortment in Harold Epstein's garden. But no matter, in fall they all flood the eye with saturated color.
There seemed to be several springs feeding the hillside -this is pure conjecture - it might have been all man made. At any rate, there were several streams of water flowing down the hillside, providing ample places for a sampler of Japanese inspired bridges.
And at every turn, the maple color continued to saturate the eyes. But unlike the sun, they did not burn, but filled the eyes with contentment.
Wandering along, up and down across the hillside, we came to a waterfowl habitat. The local residents were for the most part enclosed by a large twisted wire fence. We are not talking an ordinary pen, but something telephone poll in height and large ponds in length. This friendly little swan, with white petticoat peeking out from under, was in the upper pond, outside the fence. I understand black swans are inhabitants of Australia, so one assumes he was here for the long duration.
At the end of the wildfowl preserve was another enchanting scene of fall-colored understory. We met one of the garden designers (and builders), Carole Rocherolle, who documented quite a bit of the project in her book The Landscape Diaries: Garden of Obsession. It's a fun quick read that gives a whiff of the place. After a peruse, my husband is ready to see it next year.

After one last look at the island before we said adieu,  it was back to our own gardens. For my part, I am anxious to cultivate a moss garden. Perhaps there will be room for another Japanese maple? The Steinhardt garden will again be open in the spring for Garden Conservancy. It is easy to come away after a day of enrichment with ideas to play out in your own backyard. Life is rich and full. Enjoy.

Fall For Florida


Ed writes me from Florida that he is missing Fall. That is, he is missing a New England Fall. This evokes memories of times spent in California when I yearned to see that first kiss of frost on the grass. Magic. So herewith is a photo journey of Fall 2010, from my house, down the road to the beaver pond by CJR and onto Little Pond at White's Woods. Fall speaks for itself.


End to the Long Hot Summer

Now the morning light does not brighten the shop wall until after 7 am. Chipmunks and birds get a Saturday sleep-in as I do not let the cat out until light on the weekend. Yes, we have had cool temperatures lately during the evenings and early morning. By the time I get home from work there is hardly time for a relaxing social drink and quick stroll around the garden. It's either pick snap peas and kale or stroll, sit and sip. Daytime temperatures are still overly warm. The big maples are losing leaves before they have much of a chance to turn other than yellow and then brown. Rhododendron also show drooping yellow leaves. The tropical downpour, after weeks of drought, brings welcome relief for the newer plantings, as well as bringing down the ash leaves now blanketing the beds..

The cooler nighttime temperatures came just after the annual Goshen Fair. This benchmark end to summer gathers the fatted calves from near and far as well as dozen varieties of tomatoes and everything in between alongside the annual carnival. Thank goodness for grandchildren to show the wonder of the fair! The sparkle in their eyes is as loud as the squealing piglets.

The timing of the fall garden seems much advanced this year, probably due to the drought. Colchicums, who usually wait until after the autumnal equinox, began opening in August. Unfortunately, many of my labels for them have not survived. The thought of keying them brings laughter as there is no current published authority. We shall wait. But until then, the flower is still as enjoyable whatever the name. Most interesting to me is how this C. sp. starts out with one or two flowers, with the slightest persuasion of purple. In fact, looking inward, it is clearly white all over the center.

As the days of its performance lengthen and other blooms join, laxly rising from their bulbs, the purple intensifies and becomes checkered as if painted by Escher. In botanical speak this is tessalation: arranging small mosaics or tiling. My favorite example of this in the plant world has to be the spring bloomer Fritillaria meleagris. (Now is the time to plant for that display.) I had surmised this colchicum to be C. autumnale, but have found mention of no tessalation in literature.

 The first autumn bulb to be planted in this Goshen garden was the splendid Colchicum autumnale 'Alboplenum'. I knew it from my previous home where it had grown without fuss. In the ground here for many years at the corner of the stone wall,  it would open in early October, surviving the leaf fall and early frosts. When the new sax garden came along, I thought it had been paved over by stepping stones. After three years, now it's back!
 Recently we added a very lovely and large species, blooming September, named Colchicum speciosum. Holubec in his "The Caucasus and its Flowers" gives a distribution in the montane and subalpine meadows as well as streambanks of the mountains in Turkey and Iran. That should be a good clue as to where to plant. I make sure there is plenty of drainage. What is now in the trade reliably gives a good fall display in Goshen. What you see as it opens remains until the end of the show.
As the opportunity presents itself, we try less hardy hybrids. Colchicum agrippinum may be a cross between C. variegatum and C. autumnale. In internet literature, it is supposedly easier to grow. Here we positioned it at the base of the patio scree.The autumnale ancestry may add just enough hardiness to last here in the Berkshire foothills. And Escher would definitely flip over this one.
Whenever a visitor comes to my garden the fist question is always "Do you know Daphnes?". They are the mainstays of the rock garden shrubs. Varying in size, one can definitely explore much of the species with a large collection in a small garden. Many years ago I came home from a plant sale with one not labeled. It was inserted at the base of the raised lime bed. Lack of a label at that time did not daunt me. Recently, thanks to Barry Porteous' keying skills, we believe it to be Daphne alpina. The main trunk has swelled to a couple of inches, supporting its two foot height. It gives a sweet spring display and then reblooms through the fall.

Barrie also helped with identifying Daphne x whiteorum "Warnford".This prostrate cross grows up the slope and has a few blooms all season. At times the buds open very pink but always fade white with a plum backing.
 Gentians continue during this season. Gentiana asclepiadea is a rather tall floriferous late summer bloomer. It peeks through the diphylleia, which shelters it Given its preferences, it will colonize and delight every summer. Easy from seed, there are many color forms, from blue to pink to white. It's sometimes nice to mix them for an added shimmer. Give it rich moist soil at the edge of the woodland and keep it out of the hot sun. Look for this must-have in the seed lists.

 The willowy gentian lasts until fall when it passes the "indispensable" torch to Gentiana scabra, a native of Japan. G. scabra has a few forms, some more upright than others. The one that works here is decumbant, lying in grit based with moist soil. (When given the richer soil that it prefers, it does not seem as hardy during winter ice storms that come to this zone 5/4 garden.) Even years when frost comes in September, there is good bloom and saturated gentian blue color later on in the fall. During the torrential rain of the past few days, it merely closed its buds and hunkered down. This morning, upon inspection, buds are intact and re-opening. Another very easy plant from seed, it blooms through October and sometimes early November.