Monday, December 5, 2016

Fir sugar for the holidays



Eat your wreath? You know me...


Firs are very fragrant and I have been using organic Fraser and balsam fir needles (thank you, Windswept Farm, Vermont) to make some Interesting Things. My story and recipe for fir sugar, salt, and home-cured fir and juniper gravlax are over at Gardenista.




Friday, December 2, 2016

Saffron in the house


I picked the fall-blooming saffron crocus flowers in the cold garden, each one still furled tightly. In the day since I removed their stick barricades (for photos) the squirrel/s had dug some up. Grrr. I replaced the barricade.

In the bright kitchen I put the flowers down, and was then distracted by a conversation with the Frenchman, who had come home with some very fancy headphones for me, to listen better to movies on super longhaul flights (14.5 hours to Johannesburg, coming up soon).

Then I turned around, back to the flowers.


They had opened!

I have never thought about crocuses before. It turns out they are thermonastic: they are very sensitive and respond to, temperature. They are also slightly photonastic - responsive to light. 

In the warm, bright kitchen they opened their petals in minutes, something I thought I would not see. 


Each flower has three red stigmas. I had 14 flowers (more are still appearing, in the garden). 


The fresh red stigmas are sweetly scented. They are two feet from where I type and I can smell them.

Next year I'm planting more.

I have such a smile on my face.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Saffron crocus!


In Brooklyn it poured with rain for two days. Today, when I went out to feed The People (our name for our sparrow hordes), I happened to glance down. And there was a row of pale crocuses. I was not expecting that at all. All wrapped tightly shut, some showing an expensive tongue of scarlet. I don't think they will open - no direct sun shining on them at this time of year. I just had not thought of that.


But there they are. 

Part of the Trump-therapy bulb collection, they are in fact fall-blooming, but considering how late I planted them...

I will pick them tomorrow and collect their anthers.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Grow Journey and the stories that seeds tell


Sometimes, on a rainy day, when plans have been thwarted, there is time to dart down a rabbit hole.

(The plans included photographing finished Douglas fir recipes in daylight, but we ain't got no daylight, so next best thing: plant talk.)

When Aaron von Frank, co-founder of Grow Journey wrote to me a few weeks ago and said that December's seed of the month packet would have stories to tell, he was not kidding.

The email from Grow Journey that precedes each month's package reads: "...your December seed varieties have a fairytale/storybook theme. Folklore like this shows how human civilizations throughout history have emphasized the deeply ingrained importance that passalong foods hold in their livelihoods and culture, by embedding those foods within their oral and written traditions. By contrast, modern stories are rarely about varieties of food we treasure..."

The very first thing that came to mind when I thought about food, plants, and folklore was an illustration that opened one of my favourite childhood stories, which resided in an anthology - red-cloth bound and enormous, called  the Children's Treasury of Literature in Colour (Louis and Bryna Untermeyer, 1966): Rapunzel. In the picture I remembered,  luscious green plants grew in dark brown soil, behind a wall. It was one of many childhood images that informed my idea of gardening.

And guess what was in the seed packages? The third packet I looked at contained seeds of mâche ('Baron' cultivar). The description on the packet reads: "Mâche (rhymes with squash) is so delicious that the Brothers Grimm say it's the plant Rapunzel's parents stole from the  witch's garden, forcing them to give up their first child as penance."

Rabbit hole.

I found the illustrations I remembered, online. The illustrator is Gordon Laite.

And then I found the story.

"There were once a man and a woman who had long in vain wished for a child. At length the woman hoped that God was about to grant her desire. These people had a little window at the back of their house from which a splendid garden could be seen, which was full of the most beautiful flowers and herbs. It was, however, surrounded by a high wall, and no one dared to go into it because it belonged to an enchantress, who had great power and was dreaded by all the world.

"One day the woman was standing by this window and looking down into the garden, when she saw a bed which was planted with the most beautiful rampion - Rapunzel, and it looked so fresh and green that she longed for it, and had the greatest desire to eat some. This desire increased every day, and as she knew that she could not get any of it, she quite pined away, and began to look pale and miserable.

"Then her husband was alarmed, and asked, "What ails you, dear wife?"

"Ah," she replied, "if I can't eat some of the rampion, which is in the garden behind our house, I shall die."

[She really, really liked salad. I can relate.]

"The man, who loved her, thought, sooner than let your wife die, bring her some of the rampion yourself, let it cost what it will. At twilight, he clambered down over the wall into the garden of the enchantress, hastily clutched a handful of rampion, and took it to his wife. She at once made herself a salad of it, and ate it greedily. It tasted so good to her - so very good, that the next day she longed for it three times as much as before. If he was to have any rest, her husband must once more descend into the garden..."

Which is when the poo hit the fan:


Note the nice radishes and black cat...

...one of the other seed packets is filled with 'French Breakfast' radishes. I seem to have lost my radish touch, though. They are the first crop I remember growing as a very small girl. No problem. Now I get huge leaves, very little radish. Most sources cite too much nitrogen in the soil - I do not fertilize.

Back to the story. I looked up the plant referred to as rampion in  the English translation (remember the brothers Grimm were German). It seems that the common name rapunzel (she was named after this tempting plant) could refer to one of two plants: either mâche (also known as lambs lettuce and corn salad), as well as to Campanula rapunculus, which was eaten as a vegetable in ye olde days. Plants often have more than one common name, so it's hard to know which is the right plant. But I am grateful for the nostalgic trip into childhood. That old book still sits on the little bookshelf in my bedroom in Constantia, and contains many other botanical treasures.

Of course, in typical Grimm fashion, terrible things happened (as they do): violence, blindness, banishment. And then some foraging. The blinded prince was forced to survive in the woods on "roots and berries" as he wandered in darkness.

All in one tale, some important themes of my life: edible plants, a passion for salad, foraging. And the black cat, of course (ours behaved better, by a whisker). Also, against all odds, I found my prince.



I cannot wait to  plant this new mâche. Mostly because it means gardening will have begun, again. I do have some very small plants from last spring's self sown seeds which germinated in October and I hope they will overwinter, as they did last year. It is one of the most rewarding of cold weather greens and trying a new cultivar will be fun.

We are just back from Montreal's outlying suburbs where we shopped at a supermarket chain called IGA. I love it (the cheese!). But in the salad section I bought beautiful mâche - something rarely seen in the States (once at Trader Joe's).  The first time I ever saw it sold commercially was in another French-speaking suburb, this time outside Geneva, one snowy December in opera singing days.


I am very happy to be able to grow it now, especially having learned - the hard way - that it simply will not germinate until the nights are reliably chilly, below 50'F.

Gift season is here; seeds are such rewarding ones, because they give back and they teach. And, as I have seen, they also tell stories.  With a gift of a seed of the month membership, comes so much online information accompanying the packets: background, cultivation, growing practises.

As always, Grow Journey offers a 30-day free trial ($3.99 postage must be paid). All the seeds are USDA certified organic, and there will always be something surprising and special.  Check out the Grow Journey blog for useful tips, too, like growing peas for their greens.

Seeds represent hope, courage and perseverance.

Keep digging.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Gifts for Gardeners - Bulb therapy


Sometimes, you must buy your own gifts. Because only you know when you need them.

With autumn days drawing down, I had bought bulbs, of course. More lilies, for example. And I tidied away the last of the Mexican sunflowers (above), and the leaning stalks of jewelweed and the collapsed liatris seedheads.

But with the political news as bad as it could get, I bought more bulbs. And more.

And then some more.

"Keep digging, keep digging..."

Earlier, through October and into November, I had planted a lot of garlic, thinking that it might be useful for warding off evil. It came up.  But evil triumphed. And half the country did not vote.


In time for the worst news, 25 Crocus sativus arrived - for a grand total $9.95 (I bought these from Dutch Grown). Yup, saffron crocus. They arrived already sprouting and too late to leaf and flower this fall, but these are fall-blooming crocus, with the added excitement of saffron threads (their anthers). Why plant better-known Colchicum when you can have flowers and food (my motto)?

I have no idea how much saffron I can harvest from 25 plants, but I am hoping about a teaspoonful, dried. I dream small. And then there will be a bouillabaisse party, big time.


Also in that post-election order came 10 therapeutic daffodil 'Pheasant's Eye,' cream petals with an orange heart; 5 very exciting Fritillaria persica, statuesque with a spike of small purple flowers - I have planted them in the sunniest spot (sunniest then, there is zero sun, now) where water does not collect (they need good drainage); 5 Fritillaria radeana (above) - large, sturdy white and green flowers borne in a parasol, which are said to take some shade, so these are buried along the eastern side of the garden where the tall ivy fence shades that bed until later in the day in late spring and summer. And finally, 25 Muscari 'Valerie Finnis,' a pale blue grape hyacinth which will be picked for tiny posies, indoors.

In sunnier spots in the side beds are near-black Queen of the Night as well as some white tulips, from Brent and Becky's.

On the cusp of the election I planted two tulip cultivars, 'Darwin Impression' and 'Dragon King'  in four double rows in the vegetable garden. They are in doubtful taste, like our winning candidate, and I blame his fake tan for making me think that a pink-apricot blend was a good idea. But they were on sale in bulk, from Van Bourgundien's. So they are my vegetable garden joke and will look regimented, but then everything else in the vegetable patch is already in rows. Also, tulips are edible. They will bloom above the growing garlic and will be very present when photographed from the roof. I hope.


Also from Van Bourgundien's came a clutch Lilium regale, one of my classic lily choices - tall and white, not too showy, and scented; and Lilium lankongense, a pretty pale pink turkscap.


The lankongense were not in very good shape - one moldy and unusable bulb and the others quite dry. We'll see if they recover, underground.


My main lily order comes always from The Lily Garden in Washington - the best quality bulbs I have ever seen, and consequently more expensive. From them I reinforced my 'Silk Road' presence in the garden (Silk Road is the lily in my profile picture on the blog, taken by Julianna Sohn for Martha Stewart Living; it arrived one year as a bonus bulb and I hated it before loving it).


The new lilies were all planted in-ground, even as I was removing the pot-planted lilies (above) to store in the fridge over winter. I have given up allowing them to overwinter in pots, after one snowy winter rotted them all. The cold was fine, but the pots froze solid so that melting snow on top could not drain. An artificial pond was created, and only aquatics like wet feet. The same thing killed the potted roses the following year, in Harlem.


And, long before all this in the carefree days of October, I planted Eremurus and some more alliums ('Everest'), as those were so successful, last year. The Eremurus, which look like South African rain spiders, are an experiment - these are not ideal conditions for them. Also from Brent and Becky's the sizes were uneven - I am not sure that the tiddly ones will bloom.


All my election bulbs were planted just in time for some soaking rain after a dry start to fall. And then I sprinkled a carpet of chile flakes over the tulip bulbs. I had forgotten about squirrels and tulips (I never planted tulips in my previous terrace gardens - it seemed too much of a waste of pot-space, as I needed the pots for other things). A friend, a former Brooklyn resident, who now lives in the country - where he has ramps and morels on his land - reminded me. I've also laid branches on top of the tulip bulbs, and so far, so good...touch wood. Or chiles. I will reapply every few weeks.

Next year's garden exists only in my head, and there is no knowing, now, what next year may bring. Bad things, no doubt, at home and abroad.

But there will also be flowers.


Monday, November 21, 2016

The winter of our discontent


At last cold, as opposed to chill, has arrived in Brooklyn, with temperatures a few degrees above freezing, overnight. None of the greens mind it, so far (those are rapini leaves in the foreground, above).


We can't keep up with the arugula. It is very good wilted, inside grilled cheese sandwiches.

We go North soon, to see Canadian family. And in January I plan to be in DC for the Million Women March to protest that man's inauguration. But: if you know of a place for me to stay, holler. AirBnB is all tapped out. Town is full. Tips appreciated [update: accommodation found, thank you!]

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The pool in the woods


Once upon a time, there was a weekend.

A Frenchman and a South African decided to drive into it. So they hired a car. Once they had wiped the car down with Chlorox wet wipes, they pointed north, toward the country with the trees.


They were going to a place they remembered, where they could sit and listen to water, and see nothing but leaves falling.


To get there they walked on a path that crunched, where clusters of honey mushrooms grew on roots.


 And where a man who passed them told them they had just missed an otter. 


It was as it had ever been.


They waited and watched, but no otter.


Then he went downstream, and she circled trees and explored leaves. 


They ate lunch on the big rock. Hot soup from a Thermos. Sandwiches with garden leaves and cheese, and Sunday salmon on a Brooklyn bagel.




                                                        And then they drove home.
.


                                                    Into the thickening arteries of the city.

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