Sunday, February 15, 2015

What a Difference a Day can Make

Today we are under siege from snow again. We shovelled four feet of snow from the roof yesterday, just so it can accumulate again today. I must admit that a snowy day where there is nothing to do but read and hunker down can be nice- but really- even I have limits! 
But tomorrow will be a different day! Off to Naples Florida we go!

Naples Botanical Garden

Tomorrow the landscape will have green in it. Can't wait to go to some of my favorite public outdoor spaces, The Naples Botanical Gardens and the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Of course, just the beach at Pelican Bay is wonderful with an incredible amount of bird and ocean life.

Pelican Bay Beach

Next week I will have lots of pictures of things found at the Naples Botanical Gardens to show. Until then, stay warm!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Monet's Dahlias

It is that time again! Buying the year's seeds and tubers is my favorite ritual of the winter Sunday. As it is snowing another 2-5 inches today, I can dream of all the new varieties and changes I want to make in the garden. I have always dreamed of being a serious collector of dahlias, but have not had enough space to give over to a plant that only starts blooming in Maine in mid September. This year though I have a new rototilled area that will be perfect for dahlias and potatoes. This new bed is on the end of the house, near the compost pile and burn pit. Perfect for growing things that may not be beautiful all summer, but need full sun. My love of dahlias started long ago with my seeing my father's friend grow dahlias for shows. I remember his dinner plate varieties all had little umbrellas that he moved with the sun to protect the blooms until the next exhibition. 

Monet's Garden and House at Giverny
But then, it became obsession after visiting Giverny, Monet's spectacular house and gardens in France. Being in France for the months of September and October, all the public gardens were filled with dahlias. I was curious if they had been planted later in the summer from greenhouses. They were the main feature, and if it is anything like here, you would have nothing in bloom the rest of the season. Oh yeah, it is not like here! They probably did have greenhouses growing these plants and they planted them like annual beds. Here are some photos from Monet's collection of dahlias. I don't know any of the varieties, but it was a visual feast!

Monet's Gardens and house are not over rated, if you haven't seen them they are something to try to see. Family, home, gardening, food, and art are the focus of his life at this time in his mature life. Though necessity often dictated his choices of where to live, he dug right in and made Giverny the heart from which to inspire all his work. Gardens, house and collections speak of a life well lived. This understanding of the man permeates how I see his painting. I see what he choose to value and how deeply he immersed himself.
So now to go through my tuber catalogs and find a few new varieties to try. I have last year's tubers in boxes in sawdust in the basement that are already pushing up new growth. Come April I will pot them in pots and then transplant well after frost to the new bed.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Botanical Walk in India

As I hear the plow once again in the neighbors driveway I am craving green. Looking back at pictures from our trip to India last year, I can smell the spice in the air. In the heat, the plants give off a fragrance that permeates the whole atmosphere. So many commonly seen trees and bushes are used every day in cooking. Here are some pictures from a botanical walk with some new friends from the SITA (South India Term Abroad) center we were with for a few days.
The incredible staff at the SITA Center on our arrival.
Once they knew I was interested in plants, the staff pointed out all the trees, bushes and plants we passed that were used in some way. It seemed that almost every plant had some folklore and medicinal application. At first I thought that it was only our knowledgeable hosts that knew so much. But then after days of even cab drivers talking about "how my grandmother would give us this for headaches" and tour guides talking about plants at historic sites, I realized that every person had quite a working knowledge of the plants around them and their uses. It was an oral history being passed down in the family.

Here in the US we can usually get most spices we want for any type of cooking, but rarely do we see how they grow.  In Indian cooking they use a lot of spice. By that I mean so much that it becomes the paste and base for all sauces. There are so many spices to choose from, that the combinations are almost infinite. Here is a link to a list of many of these herbs. So many dishes are vegetarian too! Here are a few pictures I took of the ways things look on the vine so to speak.

Curry Tree

Curry is common in Indian cooking, but does not come from one plant. Curry powder is a Western notion that originated in the 18th century and usually a mix of coriander, tumeric and cumin. This young tree above is called a Curry Tree and the leaves are used in many curry dishes along with many other ingredients (although many "curries" do not use these leaves.) These leaves are fried along with onions in the first step in a good curry. They have a very distinctive flavor. It is spices and plants like this that make it very hard to recreate Indian food as eaten in India here in the US.

Jack Fruit
Like other fruits in the hotter parts of the world, the smell of the Jack Fruit is initially repugnant to our western senses. But like other smelly fruit it has a tasty interior flesh that is  mellow and delicious. It always amazed me on the tree!

Ms. Nirmala Christina looking at the Tumeric
One of the most interesting things I learned was how most Indian spices have medicinal qualities that have guaranteed them a spot in traditional cooking. Tumeric is a great example of this. A bitter herb with not much flavor, Tumeric has anti-parasitic properties. We were told that they use it a lot on fish because traditionally people put tumeric on fish to keep parasites away. They also knew that if the Tumeric turned red, the fish had already been infected. Making so much sense in a hot country where food goes bad fast, to use a plant that kills parasites and changes color in their presence, brilliant! The bright yellow powder is made from the dried ground tubers. Read more about all the medicinal qualities of Indian plants here.

Star Fruit
These Star Fruit can be missed as they look so much like the leaves!

Here is a stand of cumin, looking much they way coriander grows. The seeds are ground to make the spice. Cumin, coriander (cilantro seed), fennel, black and white cardamon, fenugreek and different colored peppers are some staples.

I wish I could remember what this beautiful pink flower and bush was. Any guesses? It is obvious from the picture that this was important- oh well. I will try and use a plant ID website to find out.


One of the most common trees is the Tamarind. Here in Madurai they are everywhere. Tamarind is a an essential part of south asian cuisine and comes from the bean inside a pod from this tree.

Cinnamon: Dinodia Photos via Getty Images
 Here is what Cinnamon looks like before they peel the bark. The inner bark is then extracted and dried.

So much to take in, I realized I should always bring a notebook in situations like botanical walks in India! I learned so much and have a broader sense of what India is like, but know it is only the surface deep. Once outside the huge cities, tradition, family, good food made by hand, and a deep connection to their environment was what I saw.  Many take-aways for this American novice.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

For the Love of Hellebores!

 I am sure that there are many of you who are in love with the hardy, modest, and subtley elegant Hellebore. I can still see their dark green leaves from the bay window, holding up in the snow. I would like to add many more next year because though they are refined, they are tough. Deer seem to stay away, and they bloom for a long time here in Maine. In their third year, the clumps have substantially grown into being a beautiful evergreen mass in shady areas.

Here is the lovely Helleborus Spring Promise Sandra in its second year. Lime green and white flowers that have rose freckles push up from the leaf rosettes in late fall and early spring. As the clump gets bigger it takes on more gravitas in its corner.

Here is another, the Helleborus ballardaie HGC Cinnamon Snow. This one is even more unassuming as the flowers start out quite dusty rose like the stems and underside of the leaf, but then mature into something paler.

Here are two more I am thinking of for this next year:
Helleborus x hybridus Swirling Skirts. This picture from Fraser's Thimble Farms
is just the beginning of what they have to offer.

and perhaps this pale beauty Helleborus x hybridus WD Pale Pink also available through Fraser's Thimble Farm.

Of course another great resource for Hellebores if you can't find what you need is White Flower Farm. They have many Hellebores to choose from and have a great mail order reputation. 
For more about the love of Hellebores, this Fine Gardening article will  satisfy!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Tree Dreaming Deep

Every year at this time I start plotting what trees to buy in the up coming season. On this old property, I lose trees every year. Some due to storm damage, some due to the creeping wet part of the property, and some due to disease and old age. I hope to keep ahead of it all and plant more than I lose each year.

Trees constitute at least half, sometimes more, of my annual budget for plant material. They are a commitment both financial and physical. To plant trees right you need time, the right amendments, and a strong back. I am excited about this Acer griseum, Paperbark Maple, we put in last year. Look at that gorgeous bark! This will replace a weeping birch that succumbed to the bronze birch borer. No wonder the chickadees have loved the birch, it provided another source of food while they line up to wait for the feeder! For a few years it was in decline but was so spectacular by the front door that we kept it for winter interest. But now it comes down in huge chunks with every storm, so we will have to take it down this spring. This maple will be similarly stunning in winter out the bay window!


I have had successes and failures. That is part of the game. I planted five Betula Nigra, River Birch, in our lower field 5 years ago and it is amazing how well they are doing. From our bedroom window the trunks now are turning white and are a great contrast against the hemlock forest behind them.

Not doing well are the cherry and peach trees I planted in the herb garden. The cherry, Prunus 'Lapin', attracts every Japanese beetle from miles around! I have never had a leaf after July, much less a cherry! The peach, Prunus 'Reliance', had one spectacular year with 100's of peaches. This was after a November dousing of Copper Sulfate for the rust. They ripened and fell before I could buy containers to freeze them!  But then the winds of last winter seem to have killed the north east side and half of it didn't leaf out. That is two dead or dying trees out of four in the garden. Something has to change!

My solution is more crabapples! They are hardy, disease resistant, and have two season interest. There are so many varieties that you could collect a few every year.  Here are my top choices: 
Here is Malus sargentii 'Tina' a wonderful small dwarf crabapple that has pink/cream buds that turn white.It's maximum height is 5 feet tall and 6 feet wide, making it nice for this small intimate space.

Malus 'Prairifire' I prune it back to create a dense shape every February and I can tell this tree will be spectacular in a few years. Super disease resistant, gorgeous dark pink flowers, it is tough enough for my harsh micro climate. I bought another one for the front of the house.
My favorite information chart is this one from J. Frank Schmidt + Son Co. to compare and contrast attributes!

photo credit:

On the wish list is Malus sutyzam 'Sugar Tyme', a white blooming crab with pink buds, it gets to be 18 ft high and 15 across. I think it will catch up fast to the other two and will replace the peach. The peach will move to a more sheltered area.

photo credit:
Then to replace the cherry will be perhaps Malus 'Coralcole', the Coralburst crabapple. This will grow 15 ft high and 15 ft wide and will be another pink flower with bronze type leaves. People exclaim that this is a show stopper that has a profusion of flowers. The cherry will move far away, so as to attract the hoards to the end of the property!

Then I am giving consideration to some interesting maples and perhaps a sugar maple to replace the 150 year old sugar maple that is in it's last years after being struck by lightening.  Then to look at costs, varieties, and sizes available from local nurseries. This information will help make the final choices.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Ceviche in Winter

I had a ceviche like this when we stayed at an incredible little house in the Dordogne, France. We had been there for a week and had gotten close to the couple who owned the property. They invited us into their home for dinner on the last night. It was there that I had one of the most memorable meals of my life. Everything so simple, so fresh. Alain, our host, had made a ceviche like this one and I vowed to recreate it when we got home.

This is how easy it is:
  • Take any fish that is very fresh (I just ask at our market what is fresh enough for ceviche that day.) This day I used shrimp, scallops (that he said had been caught the night before) and some sole. I have used trout and squid, I think Alain used mackeral. I like all the different textures, and certainly the sole at $4/lb vs the scallops at $19/lb makes the variety practical. 
  • Put it all in a bowl and cover with either lemon or lime juice. This usually uses 2-3 lemons or limes. 
  • After about 6 hours, the citrus will have "cooked" the fish (you will see it has turned white.) 
  • Then I add capers and their juice, paper thin slices of red onion, some parsley or cilantro, and thinly sliced hot pepper or flakes. I also add a bit of zest from the made even easier with my new microplaner! That's it! So fast, so good, company worthy, sheer goodness!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Stephanie Pilk: Floral and Interior Designer

Recently I have had the pleasure of visiting Stephanie Pilk in her home studio. It all started with a progressive afternoon of studio/garden visiting with her mother, portrait artist Jean Pilk. After a wonderful afternoon of looking at gardens and studios, paintings and floral arrangements I was inspired. Stephanie is both a floral and interior designer, describing her work as "composing and transforming spaces to live in, work in, and celebrate in." These spaces all involve plant material because, as she says, "no space is complete without some botanical presence."


Many people may remember her store, Flora Home. There she  made her reputation as floral designer extraordinaire. Now she helps Tony Elliot at Snug Harbor Farm. As Creative Project Director, Merchandiser and Buyer, or as he says "goddess of creative projects," she brings her own style to weddings, events and soon, their online presence. A wonderful partnership between these two incredibly talented plant connoisseurs!

While on a visit, I fell in love with a fabric she had on her side chairs in the living room. I had wanted to find some fabric for a small French chair that had had an unfortunate encounter with our dog. She showed me a line of fabric that she uses for many interior jobs called French Laundry. This line is exactly what I had been looking for forever! I even have made attempts to buy the actual c.1800's French fabric it emulates at Marston House in Wiscasset (but it was closed for the season!) This American company is known for their linens and uses only local artisans and craftspeople to produce their growing line.  Her eye for contemporary beauty that has one foot in the past is her specialty.

I feel distracted every time I stop by because of all the interesting things to be seen in every corner of the studio. My kind of place, where the boundaries of home and garden are blurred and it all is a feast for the eyes! Tools of the trade, including glue in the melting pot (might be a fondue pot base?), bits from past arrangements, an antique plate, and swatches of fabric, are all tucked together in surprising combinations.

For all the tangible and natural beauty that can be seen there, what perhaps I love most is what she calls the detritus of past seasons. Some will come back to life with love and care, some will be replaced with next year's new flame. I love the look of the past season's containers of all types and sizes displaying the beauty of summer past in crumbling elegance.
Keep posted for her new website and what she has going on in Spring.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Easy Pickling

I love pickles! I make them out of almost any vegetable. They are the perfect accompaniment to a cheese platter, chopped up in salads or best of all, a quick snack! In the picture above, I added the last tiny purple brussel sprouts from the garden with store bought onions. Apparently the color of the brussel sprouts infused in the brine turning it all a pleasing pink. Simplifying the basic recipe makes it so I make them more often.

Here is all you need to know for the pickle part:
1 part water to 1 part vinegar
1 (or slightly less) tablespoon of salt for each cup of liquid

After that, the fun ingredients are up to you! Garlic cloves, mustard seed, dill, coriander seed, red pepper, and fennel seed are often used in different combinations. You can use white vinegar or apple cider vinegar or a combination. I boil the liquid and salt and then pour over packed jars. It is that simple! Any vegetable will do, onions, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, cucumbers, carrots, mushrooms to name a few.

Last summer I succumbed to buying this book after seeing it in a library in Nova Scotia, The Joy of Pickling by Linda  Ziedrich. I take it out to show anyone who compliments my pickles (that will teach them!) It has more recipes for all kinds of pickles than most people will ever get to, but it is good inspiration for interesting combinations. 
So next time you have too many of a good thing in the garden, or see something particularly beautiful on the produce shelves.....pickle it!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Pintrest Possibilities

Tremella Mesenterica - Golden Jelly Lichen

How do you use Pintrest? I have several boards that I share with everyone, but I have a few boards I keep hidden for my own use. One board I call Moss and Lichens. I use it as my own digital field guide that I add to. When I take walks and see a moss or lichen, I bring it home to identify. Culling through images, I find what I think is the quintessential image, pin it to the board and add the common and Latin name. 

Cladonia  Cristatella - British Soldier Lichen

This way I have a quick and easy reference when I can't remember what something is called. Being a visual learner, this has potential to be a better field guide than any book. I say potential because it will only be as good as what I make of it!

Leucobryum Glaucum- White Pin Cushion Moss

 Sifting through all the online images and finding the one that shows all the combined characteristics of a species is a quick contemporary version of how naturalists of the past created field guides. Roger Tory Peterson painted his 1934, A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America
 by studying all the aspects of one species and then combining all the definitive attributes in one view.
How do you use Pintrest?
Look for more Art of the Garden posts on Pintrest.