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.

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.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Gifts for Gardeners - Veldt Studio Soap

From my homeland comes a range of hand made soaps by The Veldt Studio. These small batch, botanically-inspired soaps are now available online in the United States. (In South Africa, find out more about local distribution at Rondavel Soaps.) While they are ideal gifts for anyone originally from the southern African region, these high end soaps will be very welcome stocking stuffers, or simply special gifts, come the holidays.

The Veldt Studio is a family business run by wife and husband team Kate and Chikondi Chanthunya, who live in KwaZulu-Natal. They produce soaps with the Rondavel label (a ron-DAH-vil is a circular, thatched traditional southern African dwelling); Chikondi is the soap maker, Kate is the artist (and a gardener) - each soap comes in a slide-out box and is individually wrapped.

I started reading my wrapping, a page from a book. Kate told me, when I asked (we met on Instagram), that the paper is a temporary measure while she works on printing a South African map she has drawn; they use discarded and damaged Reader's Digest Condensed books from the local (Howick) library. "I find this hard sometimes," she wrote to me, "as I love reading, and often read the pages I am meant to be using for wrapping...but at the same time, I always hated that Reader's Digest and thought it was okay to condense/leave out sections that the author spent a lot of effort in writing!"

Every soap is redolent of fresh botanicals, some of which I have stumbled across on our wild hikes back home.

Beaten-up hands, post work. After an afternoon of rooting in the garden without gloves, I tried the Gardeners Scrub. Yes, it scrubbed out all the soil. But then I put it in the shower, where the Frenchman, to my surprise, guarded it fiercely. He has worn the bar down to a sliver. It's the complex botanical scent, as well as the poppy seeds, which feel very good on the skin.

I am not usually a fan of soap with Stuff in it. Like, bits-of-things. But the poppy seeds make a beautifully textured loofah for tired or itchy skin. We both love this soap.

The baobab and African bluegrass is intensely fragrant with Adansonia digitata (baobab) oil and seven other botanicals that include the bluegrass, but also coriander and grapefruit. It makes for a very happy shower experience and is noticeable to others only if someone comes right up to you and plants a kiss on your neck (as they do). Even the bathroom smells good.

Some of the soap names are very nostalgic and evoke the landscape and the vegetation types I love, and speak to them via the essential oils they contain: Little Karoo; Fynbos;Wild Coast; Bushveld; Platteland. Enough to make a person start tjanking (making noises like a wet dog who's been left out in the rain while inside his people - his life - are sitting around the fire gnawing roasted bones, telling stories of walks to come). But I have several more to go, and am looking forward to each one.

Each Veldt Studio soap is $12, which is much steeper than what I pay for our everyday Dr Bronner's All-In-One (it was Tom's of Maine until recently, when I realized they had been sold to Colgate-Palmolive). But considering the manufacturing process, the ingredients, the care in packaging and the unusually good aromatherapeutic experience, I feel that these are keepers, and gifts no one will regret giving, or receiving.

Wash on.

(And maybe send some to Obama. He shook that man's hand.)

- Previous Gifts for Gardeners Posts:

Tools with Teeth

Chance encounter - lambs quarters

After days of heaviness and dismay, I rode out into Brooklyn for a scheduled garden design appointment. The world looked the same although it was very different. On my way home again, later, I stopped in the park and realized I'd been holding my breath for a long time. The trees helped me breathe.

In a secluded spot I found a patch of bright green, young lambs quarters, a new crop after rain.

Usually a summer green, it is a treat to see them now. I prefer them to spinach. So I took them home.

Lambs quarters are the perfect ingredient for gnudi or malfatti (I can't decide which name to use for this most tender iteration of gnocchi). 

Saturday, November 12, 2016


After a garden design appointment on the other, eastern side of Prospect Park recently, I cycled home via the more winding, scenic route, through the park. I hadn't intended to stop, but when I caught a glimpse of this electric gingko, I went off-road, to the water.

And later, into the woods.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Sunchoke soup

You'll find my recipe for sunchoke soup on Gardenista. I loved my sunchoke aka Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) plants; one of the most interesting crops I have grown. And, for the record, neither the Frenchman and I have been affected by the alleged (f)articoke syndrome. Cooking them in water fixes that. In case you are AFRAID!

Don't be. They are delicious. And in shops and markets now. Assuming you live in the Northern Hemisphere.

We have not actually had much appetite, lately. But soup is acceptable.

You can also drown yourself in it if it gets too much.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Open Gardens Constantia 2016

Photos: Marianne Alexander

Hello, Cape Town. I miss you.

This weekend the biennial Open Gardens Constantia takes place. Four beautiful private gardens will be open to the public for two days only.

Tickets are R60 if you purchase them at the following garden gates:

29 Brommaert Avenue, Constantia (plus tea, cake!)
72 Starke Road, Bergvliet (plant sale)
5 Susanne Avenue, Constantia
5 Parade Crescent, Constantia Hills

Advance tickets are R50 online, at WebTickets.

You can also buy R50 advance tickets from the following shops:

Ferndale Nursery, Brommersvlei Road, Constantia
Peter Gilder, Constantia Village, Constantia
Sherwood Hardware, Ladies Mile
The Greenhouse Nursery, Montebello, Newlands

One ticket purchase gives you access to every garden and includes a garden tea (29 Brommaert Avenue), plus all the home-baked cakes, muffins, sweet loaves and sandwiches (made fresh all day) that the Constantia and Constantiaberg Garden Clubs can produce. And that's a lot.

The gardens range from grand to manageable. Three are in Constantia, one is in Bergvliet.

Gardens are open on November the 12th from 10.00am - 5.30pm, and on Sunday the 13th from 10.00am - 4.30pm. 

There are food gardens, shade gardens, indigenous gardens...

In addition to the gardens and tea, tickets also give you access to the plant sale. Members of the garden clubs have been growing and propagating plants for the last two years. Snap up shade-loving Haemanthus albiflos:

Ticket sale proceeds are donated to Abalimi bezekhaya and Soil for Life, two established and highly-regarded not-for-profits that provide essential infrastructure, support and training for food gardeners working mostly on the Cape Flats. These food gardens help provide income for microfarmers, as well as food for the farmers and their neighbours. Abalimi's CSA box is available from Harvest of Hope.

In 2014 my mom was able to had over sizeable checks to both beneficiaries. Help be part of their success again.

Enjoy the gardens, post on social media (#opengardensconstantia), and have some cake for me.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Gifts for Gardeners - Tools with Teeth

Just in time for the death of Daylight Saving Time and the beginning of the bulb-planting frenzy comes my first in a series of Gifts for Gardeners posts. May the thought of goodies to come warm you in the Northern nights.

In late summer the Brooklyn company Uncommon Goods sent me a set of garden tools to review, on the understanding that I would only if I liked them. I do! I have been test driving (digging?) them since September.

To back up a little: Last year I bought a pointy trowel with a dangerously serrated edge. It wasn't what I wanted, but it was the only one our local hardware store had in stock in November, and I had to plant bought and gifted perennials in the now-ripped-up front garden, fast, before the first freezes. Turns out I like serrated edges: very useful for cutting through rootballs. But that trowel is very skinny and more like a bulb-planting tool, so it is not helpful for actually carrying little loads of soil. It took forever to dig a hole.

Enter the handsome Garden Works Soil Scoop. The name says it all: it can actually scoop and hold enough soil for potting, or dig holes effectively.

It's also very useful for digging out established plants whose roots have filled a pot, because its sharp teeth help zip through them. Recently I used it for the unglamorous job of digging up established jewelweed whose season has at last come to an end (cutting the four-foot plants down exposes you to the rapid light arms fire of their furiously exploding seed pods - goggles would have been nice).

Anyone who has pulled as many weeds as I have in the last year will understand that a tool described as a 'weed weapon' would appeal to me. Part of my weed challenge is a path of pavers where weeds insinuate themselves into hairline cracks. The weed weapon's sharp, forked tip helps me winkle them out without destroying my already blue-collar fingernails.

The angle weeder also extends my reach into the bed, so I can lean in, dig down and rake towards myself, severing weeds as the weapon travels. It's very satisfying. It is so narrow, like a scythe, that I can usually do this without damaging the plants I mean to protect, like garlic shoots, young arugula or lettuces.The angle weeder's length and sharpness also mean that I can zap the damn morning glory seedlings with having to squat and pull every single one. They keep coming.

In fairly typical fashion I have not looked after my new tools very carefully. They live on my stone potting table in all weathers and their birch handles have fared very well and the stainless steel is spot-free. They look as good now as they did months ago, and the handles have remained very smooth to hold.

Yes, I will clean them (the picture above was taken when they were brand new) and bring them indoors for winter. In spring the weed weapon will have to start all over again. Both tools are US-made, from parts to assembly. The scoop is $21.95, the weed weapon is $23.95 - good investments, and neither breaks the bank.

Next week? Soap for dirty, dirty gardeners.