Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Year of the Treepods

Alas, the end of the year. Most people I know are ready to wrap it up and put old 2009 to bed. Go ahead, un-Christmas the house, take out the trash, start with a fresh calendar and outlook on next year. I'm not sure I'm ready to toss it out the window. Ten years from now, I won't recall that 2009 was an exceptionally fantastic year, but if I put on my glass half-full hat, I can quickly think of 10 good things that I'll remember about 2009.

10. After 2 years of nothing but talk, I started a blog.

9. I learned to bake a most excellent chocolate cake.

8. Approximately 40% of my family survived H1N1.

7. Approximately 60% of my family did not have an opportunity to survive H1N1.

6. My gardenias bloomed twice; my delphiniums (biennial) did not bloom for the third year in a row (off to the compost bin they go).

5. Setting up a charge account for the kids at the local diner while on vacation provided me a full day of relaxation each and every day for two full weeks.

4. My landscape design business did not fail, in fact, it will post a profit for the second year in a row. (What recession?)

3. In spite of the excellent chocolate cake and the frequency of which I bake it, my overall health remains good. Too, my hairdresser also remains in good health so that I can continue to disguise my chronological age.

2. My husband, after 16 years of marriage (plus the 6 years we dated), became a Catholic like the rest of our family. Surely, the highlight of this Easter Vigil ceremony was two of our children helping with his baptism. And, the most excellent chocolate cake, this time with raspberry filling between the layers.

1. The debut of the Treepods. While they are definitely a 2009 creation, I think I'll keep them up a few more weeks to break in the new year.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Where's the Beef?

Forecast tonight in our nation's Capitol is 14 to 20 inches of snow. After braving a near bloody battle in the grocery store parking lot, the kitchen is stocked and ready to break in the brand new Crock Pot. (I gave it to my husband for his birthday last weekend. Romantic, huh?)
SO, the question is, what do I make first for a cold and snowy day? Something that will fill the house with warmth and delicious smells?
Ingredients on hand include stew meat, ground chuck, chicken, roast, onions, garlic (of course), potatoes, carrots and a cabinet full of herbs and spices. Plus, I always have lots of broth, diced tomatoes (paste and sauce too), picante sauce and Tabasco and beans galore. I checked the herbs still alive in my pots and if I can dig the snow off them tomorrow, I'll have fresh basil, parsley and thyme.
Feel free to send suggestions - and I'll let you know how it turns out!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Liquid Dinner

Most of the time, I like to drink icy cold beer in a longneck bottle. My preference is for domestic brands with a light, watery flavor - generally not-very-well-respected by regular beer drinkers. Gotta keep an eye on the waistline . . . never mind that I just tossed out the scale. No, a new one is not on Santa's list.

The holidays can wreak havoc on the mid-section, hips, thighs and jowls. As I sit down to respond to a few holiday party invitations (and "weigh" the consequences), I remembered the strategy of the parents of dear friends -- Thursday Night Liquid Dinner. Once a week, these mature adults, over the age of 21, drink their dinner (responsibly, at home). Skip the meat and potatoes. Forgo the heaping bowl of pasta. Mix up a delicious drink. Sip with the s.o.s.o. ("spouse or significant other"). Devour delightful conversation. Turn in early for a little extra beauty sleep.

Here's their Cosmo recipe that is sometimes on the Thursday night menu.

1 1/2 cups vodka (use a good one, please)
1/2 cup triple sec
1/2 cup Rose's lime juice
2 1/2 cups 100% cranberry juice
Mix in a pitcher and chill before serving.

Is it Thursday yet?

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Bountiful Harvest

The mess of vegetables and greens turned into this lovely Thanksgiving arrangement to be auctioned off tonight at a fundraiser for the gardens at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown.

Why vegetables? Surely, the harvest of edibles from the garden just inspires a display. But, the real reason is that the other arrangements will be designed, crafted and created by truly professional floral designers. My realm is outside, not inside. I had to diverge from the traditional and take a completely new slant on the holiday table decor (turkey not included).

For those curious about the yellow thing in the previous post, it's Citrus medica var. sarcodactylus, Buddha's Hand and is often used in Asian cooking. It didn't make the final cut today.

The following is the list of vegetables and herbs that are in the arrangements:

Allium porrum, Leek
Asparagus officinalis, Asparagus
Brassica oleracea var. gemmifera, Brussel Sprout
Brassica oleracea var. acephala ‘Georgia’, Georgia Collard
Brassica oleracea var. acephala ‘Bicolor’, Ornamental Kale
Brassica oleracea var. capitata, Purple Cabbage
Brassica oleracea var. italica, Broccolette
Brassica rapa ruvo, Broccoli Raab
Brassica rapa, Turnip
Cynara scolymus, Artichoke
Petroselinum neapolitan, Flat-leaf Parsley
Raphanus sativus, Radish

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What in the World . . .

. . . could this mess turn into?
Check back Friday for the answer - and bonus points for anyone who can identify the yellow thing in the photograph.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"No"vember Update

Only two weeks into the month and I've just now remembered it's my month to decline invitations to do anything I don't want to do, or don't have time to do, or think I do have time to do but really don't have time to do. Squandered away these precious two weeks (for reference, please read "Volunteer Junkie" posted 9/23/09).

So far, the tally is way too long - planted pots at our library today (in the dark, no less - more on this when I can take photos in the daylight hours), helping a priest create an arrangement with Biblical inspiration for an auction (and believe me, there will be more on this), help with an online auction at my daughter's new school (I swore "auction" was a banned word in my personal dictionary), and help my husband develop a website for his newest entrepreneurial endeavor (harder to say no to him, well, not really, but I'm a sucker for blue eyes).

Am I doomed?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Patience Is Indeed a Virtue

As I tromped back to the house after putting the trash out early this morning, I was greeted with a lovely November surprise, a fall blooming camellia literally bursting with blossoms.

I planted this Camellia sasanqua 'Autumn Moon' in my garden three years ago. It has struggled to make itself at home, even though it is sited perfectly - protected from the harsh southern exposures, partial shade (morning sun, afternoon shade), in moist, but well-drained acidic soil. William Ackerman could not have found a better spot for this plant in my garden. I pass it many times each day as I leave and return home. I've watched and waited. And today, at last, the reward.

Oooh, the metaphors for growing children . . .

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Volunteer Junkie

No where in the yellow pages is there a listing for Volunteers Anonymous. I am in dire need of a 12-step program to learn how to say "no" when people ask me to do things for free. Really, I only need 11 more steps. For the past few years, I've been able to muster up the courage to decline such opportunties only in the month of "No"vember. I just need to know what to do the rest of the year.

Library landscape project that I volunteered to manage pro bono

I suspect I've inherited this weakness from my mother.

While filling out high school forms one September in the early 1980s, when I was in one of my characteristic sarcastic teen-age moods, I paused when I got the the small box that requested my mother's occupation. "Homemaker" was inaccurate - the house was already built, and she did not build it. It was about 25 years too early for something like "domestic engineer." We had help inside and outside the house four days a week so "cleaning lady," "laundry lady," or "chief cook and bottle washer" didn't really apply. "Housewife" just didn't seem to fit my mother either, primarily because she wasn't in the house very much.

Between the Junior League, Symphony Society, college Board of Regents, Housing Authority, church, the art museum, our schools (she wasn't yet old enough for garden club), she was busy all day and often scurrying from meeting to meeting, all the while making sure dinner was balanced, home-cooked and on the table each night, shuttling us to gymnastics, football, orthodontists, baseball or soccer. And for none of this did she make a dime (this is not the time and place to discuss the relative value of the stay-at-home mom, either).

Why on earth, I wondered, would my mother do all of this stuff and not make any money? The only answer I could surmise was an addiction of the worst kind - she was a junkie, a volunteer junkie. And that's what I put on my high school form.

Flash forward and I'm sitting here writing, after spending two hours at a library volunteer meeting. Last week, not only did I attend a garden club meeting, I managed to offer to be the 5th grade class treasurer and the gymnastics team treasurer and in my spare time, get a few auction donations for the school golf tournament, and serve on a committee for a church fundraiser (and donate a flower arrangement for auction, too). That was just last week. It's Tuesday and I'm on another roll this week.

Oh I can justify it all - as I am sure my mother has - making the world a better place, giving back to my community, setting an example for my kids to follow, "marketing" my landscape design business via pro bono project management or landscape consultations.

I've got to find that 12-step program fast - November is still six weeks away.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Canalisation Francaise

In other words, French drain.

A torrential rain sent water into the window well of our basement, creating a leak and a big mess. Carpet, ruined. Refrigerator, unplugged; beer, wine and flower bulbs relocated to the kitchen fridge. Old dust bunnies in corners, drowned.

After the initial mess was cleaned (it would take a week to professionally dry the carpet), I realized I had a mere 3 hours until the next huge storm was predicted to arrive. I couldn't risk relying on the weatherman to be wrong.

The little swale I had created the spring before had well, unswaled. I needed something that would drain water away from the house, not refill within a few months and only take a few hours to build. Having designed and studied how french drains work, it was time for me to spring into action. Pulling out some old notes, I took some measurements, drafted a quick sketch and was off for a quick trip to the nearby hardware store (the old-fashioned (read: expensive) local one) as the looming thunderclounds didn't allow for a trek to the large national chain store.

Shopping List:

12 large bags of pea gravel
black mesh "landscape fabric"
new shovel (why not)

Once my materials were in hand, I dug and dug and dug an 8" deep and 12" wide trench from the area before the water began to pool, about a foot away from the house. To make sure the water would flow away from the house, I poured a small amount of water into the trench until I could see it flow the entire length to where the trench met the grade of the lawn. Once I was sure my trench was properly sloped, I laid a long strip of landscape fabric in the trench, and filled it with pea gravel about 4" across and 2-3" deep. Then, folding the landscape fabric around the gravel, I created a small tube of gravel. Last, I filled in the rest of the trench some dirt and topped with a couple of inches of pea gravel.

For once, the weatherman was right on target. About 30 minutes after finishing my work, the second storm - worse than the first - arrived and my new French drain worked like a charm.

Merci beaucoup to Henry French.

Monday, August 10, 2009

101 Gardens To See Before I Die

I'm still working on the complete list, but definitely one on my "must see" gardens was Thuya Garden & Lodge in Northeast Harbor, Maine. It only took a small fortune to secretly bribe each of my children to let me take the most delightful afternoon of our vacation to steal away for a self-indulgent day trip. Designed by notable, and self-taught, landscape designer Charles Savage, Thuya Garden offers a splendid perennial border garden in the fashion of Gertrude Jekyll's famed English gardens. Absolutely, this would be one to remember.

Through the front gate, the first evergreens I noticed were none other than two overgrown Picea glabra, Dwarf Alberta Spruce -- the same plants ubiquitous to gas station landscapes and grocery store garden sections, and most definitely the last plant I would have expected to see at Thuya.
(Note: There is not a place in the modern world for "garden critics," so as a general rule, I try not to be critical of plant selections or garden structure of other designers. Rather, I work to make myself consider more thoughtfully what the designer was trying to accomplish. I may still not like the idea, but at least I can appreciate what someone else did.)

Then, I walked on a short path to the perennial gardens. At first look, I thought the mix of colors was too intense, too varied and too unplanned. I had expected a progression of colors cool to hot, but felt a bit disappointed when a lovely mix of blues, violets and whites was missing a small taste of yellow to bring out the intensity of the palette. Instead, a ruddy orange peered between some meadow blues and creamy whites. A stand of brilliant red Monarda stood straight and tall next to a massing of steely blue Echinops ritro. Why would anyone one do that?
Taking a deep breath, I continued to walk and look. The beds are not borders, but rather very long, stand alone beds that can be viewed from all sides. Just as soon as I thought again about the missing yellow, I made a turn and my view became exactly that, a wash of yellow throughout the garden with the cooler colors just a complement. The ruddy oranges and vibrant reds were perfectly sited and gave me pause to consider the pleasure of enjoying a beautifully planted garden.

Walking back through the gardens (to the loo), I found the gardener's shed. I must confess I was struck by a strong sense of shed-envy. An old wooden wheelbarrow, tools all aligned and upright against the wall, all hidden behind the main gardens, but yet still very much a part of the garden.

Only then, and much to my surprise, I found the reason for the dense and blobby Picea glabra - a perfectly framed view (denser than a holly which might not survive the harsh winters, more compact and proportional than a larger spruce) with a tease of the perennial beds - and one that would be most often, and perhaps more appropriately, enjoyed by the gardener, not the garden visitor.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Stealing Tomatoes

Technically, I didn't steal my neighbor's tomatoes. My 12-year-old son was charged with keeping them watered while they are away. I don't know many boys that age who either (a) know how to water a garden properly or (b) have the attention span to water a garden properly. Of course, I went along under the guise of supervising, when what I really wanted was to check out their vegetable garden.

You see, I'm green with veggie garden envy.

I just cannot seem to work out where to place the vegetables in my own garden, which is chock full of shady spots that would be ideal locations for eggplant, peppers, squash, maybe even some potatoes -- if only there was some sun. My sunny spots are full of perennials and shrubs and a tiny little lawn (got to have some negative space). As a designer, it just makes no sense to plop down a vegetable garden without a completely well-thought out long-term plan, perhaps a complete re-design. And, I must keep a few open spots for fancy new cultivars of perennials and shrubs that I want to try out before adding to a client's garden. How can I just stick a couple of tomato plants next to my late summer blooming Chelone lyonii 'Hot Lips'!

My interest in growing food has expanded. For clients, one of my first questions is how many kinds of herbs and vegetables they want to grow -- I always try to work food plants into the design or incorporate their existing kitchen garden into the overall plan. I know it is important for my kids to learn how to tend a garden (other than pruning roses and dead-heading annuals). I relish fresh and tender produce. So, I will plot out a spot for fall greens. I will have a new vegetable garden in the garden next spring (I've got all winter to plan). For now, I'll just keep volunteering my son for watering jobs around the neighborhood so I can have some home-grown, juicy tomatoes.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


There must be a part of my brain that is circa 1957.

We had just returned from a delightful weekend at the beach with friends. I sat down at my desk, pulled out some precious notecards a friend gave me for my birthday, and started a few quick personal notes to express our heartfelt thanks for a most delightful weekend. And then, "da-ding," I heard the alert that I had new emails. What I saw both horrified me and then, also made me pause and think, was I actually grateful? My husband had sent an email "thank you note" for the weekend to our hosts. To their work email addresses. From his work email address. Before I could get the stamp on my perfectly crafted, handwritten, personal expression of gratitude. Ugh, men.

He actually took the time out of his busy morning, after returning from a four-day weekend, to thank our friends.

Should I be mad or glad that he beat me to the punch? Should I feel guilty for cringing that he sent a note via email? Should I really care?

Of course I care. Whether it was my mother (I'm sure it was) or her friends or the etiquette lessons we had during debutante season, somewhere along the way I learned that it was necessary to write a personal note of thanks when receiving gifts or hospitality from others, even if you thanked them in person. So, I keep stashes of cute, funny, elegant or simple cards and stationery ready at hand to fire off timely little notes with just the right sentiment. A couple of my friends started a company and have some very clever ones I like to keep handy (

And even when I'm not timely with my notes -- I'm not as efficient as I like to think I am -- I still send them because it's better to thank someone late than to never thank at all. (I was ridiculously late sending a note to my friend who sent me these cute notes with recipes on the back!)

My husband has watched me, or perhaps just slept next to me, sitting in bed with my lapdesk, a favorite pen and little stack of cards and write away. My address book is the old fashioned kind with a pale yellow toile fabric cover, worn a little at the corners, each entry written in pencil because people move frequently in this day and age. It is updated each January after the flood of holiday cards help me make sure everyone's address is current. Yes, I handwrite holiday card addresses, too.

So back to my question, mad or glad? I tossed out my own note -- our hosts had already replied back to him via "reply all" -- and wrote a new one, addressed to their children. They were probably imposed more upon since they had to share their rooms and toys and entertain our children. I'm choosing to be glad, though I've pulled out my husband's personal note cards, dusted off the box top, and left them next to his bedside table for the next time he wants to write a thank you note.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Are Our Gardens Like Our Friends?

I'm off for a few days to spend time with my cradle buddies - two women whom I don't really recall ever meeting. I don't remember the first time we played. I don't remember when they spent the night at my house for the first time. We have just known each other forever -- since we were in the cradle.

With these two pals, I am my true self, comfortable, confident, funny -- at home. These two grew slowly over time into mature, healthy friendships. They do not need daily or even regular communication to make them strong, just a little nurturing once every year or so. They are not like some friends that wonder why you haven't called or emailed in six whole days, or who don't know why I left Texas or how many brothers I have, or who want to talk too much about school, kids, carpools.

I wonder, are our gardens like our friends?

My garden was feeling a little crowded, so last weekend I dug a new bed near my perennial "test" garden and transplanted some day lilies. My perennial garden needs lots of regular, boring maintenance work. Dead head, thin, cut back, water, fertilize, pull some weeds, re-edge the border, pull more weeds, water, fertilize. Beautiful, but not for long without more attention from me. I'm working in more multi-season perennials, with variable bloom times, and pulling out those that just don't perform. Oftentimes, I squeeze in a new plant here and there to see how it blends with others, how long it will last, if it likes being in my garden.

One of my favorite spots, though, is an old garden bed I started not long after we moved into our house. It's shady, under an old dogwood tree, full of perennials and small shrubs that bloom at different times of the year. Some of the perennials are evergreen, some start perking up in early spring, some peak in late summer. As fall begins, they turn into a carpet of golds, reds and oranges. Like a dear old friend, it's my favorite garden to tend, yet it needs very little tending.

I have some wonderful friends in my everyday life. We've not known each other for too long, but with some attention, our friendships will continue to bloom. With some, our commonalities of school, kids or work will dwindle and as such our friendships. Every now and then, I find myself weeding out an acquaintance or two who might not fit. And I feel lucky to have a few who are working their way towards old shade garden status.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Sweet Potato Salad of a Month

May has been like one of those summer salads that includes everything but the kitchen sink and turns out amazingly delicious. Our "May" recipe starts with soccer, softball, gymnastics, tennis and dive team. Toss in final exams, a few new work projects, birthdays, mother's day, graduations and add a confirmation, first communion, stir in 15 or more rainy days and needless to say, it's just a big mess of a month. Aaahhh, beautiful.

Thankfully, the end of the month served up some gorgeous weather for a light summer dinner in the garden with family and friends. My dear sister-in-law planned the perfect dinner party menu for me, complete with recipes and detailed advice on how not to mess it up.


Crab Cakes with Remoulade Sauce
Sweet Potato & Black Bean Salad with Honey-Lime Vinaigrette
Chicken Satay (Ina Garten's recipe)
Simple Green Salad
and of course, THE Cake (see previous post)

Are you hungry now? The sweet potato salad was completely new to me (and my guests) and is absolutely worth a try - recipe courtesy of Monica Cobb, Beaumont, Texas.

Sweet Potato & Black Bean Salad with Honey-Lime Vinaigrette

In a jar, mix, shake well, then refrigerate for a few hours -
Juice of 5 limes
2/3 cup good olive oil
4-5 Tbsp. honey
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. fresh ground pepper
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. cumin

5-6 large sweet potatoes, cubed to 1-inch with skin on
1 medium red onion, minced
2 packages cherry tomatoes, halved
2 cans black beans, rinsed and drained
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
3 avocados, cubed, with extra lime juice to prevent from turning brown

While cutting sweet potatoes, soak cut pieces for a few minutes in cold water. Then, boil sweet potatoes until just fork tender (do NOT over cook). Drain, then spread in single layer on pans and drizzle COLD vinaigrette over the sweet potatoes to stop the cooking process. When sweet potatoes are cool, gently toss them with black beans, cherry tomatoes, cilantro, onion and any remaining dressing. Add avocados and sprinkle with additional fresh cilantro before serving.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Flower Vomit

The azaleas have been in bloom in Washington the past few weeks. While I adore azaleas spread throughout a woodland garden, there are some yards that have gone a little overkill with these ubiquitous foundation plantings (like mine). I inherited a somewhat mature garden, with, no joke, over 50 different varieties or cultivars of azaleas, which in bloom, looks much like "flower vomit."

As a young child, I nicknamed my room "the flower vomit room." It had been decorated for my two older sisters, circa 1968. Painted pale pink, it had (according to my mother) very expensive 100% wool bright pink carpet that wouldn't show wear for at least 25 years (and it didn't). But my least favorite part (and no offense to the unnamed decorator), the bed linens and curtains were a blend of pinks and chartreuse and olive green, somewhat modern at that time, and to not appear overly floral for young pre-adolescent girls. It was quite out-of-style when my sisters went to college and I got my own room for the first time. I loved having my own space and not having to share a room with my rough and tumble younger brothers, but I was a tomboy through and through. Pink and I just clashed.

Pink and I still clash. My personality is much more blue, yellow and green mixed with a little dirt, er, brown. Somedays I might be a bit more red, but only if the aphids are eating my roses or my dear dog buries a bone where I've just planted dahlia bulbs. Pink is pretty and kind and gentle and delicate. In the garden, I like pink limited quantities, over there in the distance for a spot of color, or set against the backdrop of lots and lots of dark green foliage.

So my dilemna remains what to do with the wash of pink that blankets my garden for three weeks in April and May, then nothing for the remaining 11 months of the year?

Over time, a few have died giving me the chance to fill in with new deciduous shrubs with varying textures and bloom times, such as
Hydrangea quercifolia, Oakleaf Hydrangea and Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum, Doublefile Viburnum. The shady conditions and and mature height of the azaleas has offered space to experiment with shade perennial combinations -- last spring I mixed Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum', Solomon's Seal, Athyrium niponicum var. pictum, Japanese Painted Fern, Heuchera x 'Plum Puddin', Plum Puddin Coralbells, and Carex comans, Hair Sedge.

So, yes, I will continue to endure and appreciate the flower vomit each spring, if only as a launching point for experimentation.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Compost Hokey Pokey

Recently I gave a lecture about composting . . . to 28 three- and four-year-olds. In high school speech class, I learned that the most important part of preparing any kind of talk is understanding your audience. Even though I've had my own preschoolers, I don't understand them at all. Honestly, I don't think I've been more frightened.

Knowing that I would have their attention for about 8 minutes, I simplified my composting presentation into 3 key points:

1. Learn what types of everyday waste can be composted, while reinforcing the message that composting is important for both the plants that receive nutrients from the compost and for reducing, reusing and recycling the trash we make.

2. Understand that the ratio of what goes into the composting bin is the simple key to producing good compost. Layer 1/3 "green" (nitrogen) waste with 2/3 "brown" (carbon) waste.

3. Turning the composting
bin frequently will circulate the matter, adding oxygen to help break down materials. Heat and a little moisture breaks down waste more quickly.


The preschool has a tumbling compost bin, quite a bit of fun for the kids to spin recklessly like a carnival ride gone crazy, probably not fun if you happen to be an earthworm that got tossed in with a pile of dead leaves.

To illustrate points 1 and 2, I gathered 2 bags of waste and made two piles by the bin. Green waste included grass clippings, green leaves, some weeds I had pulled, some carrot peels, apple pieces and coffee grounds. The brown waste included dead leaves, hay (that I swiped from my neighbor's lawn, baring his new grass seed, don't tell), pine straw, egg shells (rinsed) and a few shreds of black and white newspaper. In small groups the kids helped me fill the composter with one handful of brown, one handful of green and a second handful of brown.

After filling the bin with our green and brown waste, we sang a crazy couple of rounds of the "Compost Hokey Pokey" complete with silly hand motions. You know the tune . . .

You put some brown stuff in
You put some green stuff in
You put some brown stuff in
And you stir it all around
Do the compost hokey pokey
And stir it all around
That's what it's all about

Of course, what good school lesson goes without a test! In another (recycled) brown paper bag, I pulled out items and had the kids tell me what should go in the bin and what should not. Can you guess the right answers?

Toy cars, uh, no.
Balloons, definitely not.
Dead leaves, yep.
Apple pieces, of course.
Mom's sunglasses, no.
Carrots, sure.
Weeds (no seeds), indeed so.

The wee ones scored 100%. Mission accomplished. The earlier children learn how simple it is to conserve, the more likely they will continue those practices as adults.

Have you tried composting?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Even Pepe LePew Wouldn't Touch This

Once in summer school school, I took a botany class. It was an easy "A" and I needed the grade points. I do not remember the professor or pretty much anything else I learned except that a weed is a plant that grows where you do not want it to grow.

Even with its fancy Latin name,
Symplocarpus foetidus, Skunk Cabbage is a weed, and not worthy of any one's garden unless they live on a few hundred acres with a swampy woodland along the edge far, far away from the house. While it may be interesting looking, it attracts flies and bugs and on a good day, smells pretty heinous.

But one man's trash is another man's treasure. In Tennessee,
S. foetidus is on the endangered wildflower list. In some areas of Europe, skunk cabbage is reported to be "highly prized" in aquatic gardens and in public parks.

But it is not endangered in Massachusetts, so Anne should (a) dig very deep all around any signs of the plant and pull it all out, then (b) correct the drainage in her yard so that it has less chance to return next year.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Breaking the Tenth Commandment

Today, my good friend Anne sent me a picture of something her daughter discovered growing in the garden and asked me to help identify it (Trillium erectum).

A few days ago, she wondered if one daffodil could turn into 25 daffodils naturalizing in the garden over 30 years. We debated via email the differences between a bulb and a bloom, what bulbs squirrels will and will not eat, and mathematics.

Anne used to live down the street from me. Our kids were best pals, our families had an open door policy (no knocking, at least during daylight hours), even our dogs had playdates. I liked to garden, Anne liked to paint and we spent hours talking about the subtle differences between Shaker Beige and Lenox Tan and why her
Wisteria floribunda needed so much pruning. We even arm wrestled after debating whether or not demolition of interior walls or mulching flower beds made our biceps bigger and arms stronger (guess who won).

But Anne moved when her husband got his dream job teaching and coaching at his alma mater. She and her girls and dog had to go with him.

Anne is a writer. She's worked at the
Washington Post, she's written for trade magazines, she writes grants, she's freelanced covering topics from medical coding to education. But her newest gig is writing, of all things, a gardening column for the local rag.

I cannot really say that I'm jealous. Her "local rag" is in western Massachusetts, not somewhere I'd enjoy living year-round (cold weather, funny dialect, Patriots fans). Her column only appears every other week and is not above the fold or section A or anywhere her writing might get her on a short list for a Pulitzer Prize. I don't think she gets to choose her topics (apparently the garden club ladies in Massachusetts are very precise about how and what they want covered in the paper).

But she's getting paid to write about what I love. How can that be?

And not that Anne isn't a gardener or garden enthusiast or one who likes plants and dirt and doesn't mind wiling away the day digging and finding and tending. But she didn't spend four years studying, memorizing hundreds of Latin names, learning why plants thrive in some places and not others, researching replacements for invasive plants, or poring over conifer needles to determine the subtle differences between species of pines, firs and spruces. If the world is indeed an ordered place, I should be the one raking in the big piles of money writing a garden column.

But as I ponder and peck away, I recall that I did not study journalism, creative writing and took only the minimum English and Literature classes required for an undergraduate degree. I didn't start out my career fact-checking, proof-reading or getting coffee for big-time reporters or writers. Who am I to think that I should be a writer of any kind just because I can type and spell?

So, I get to continue to be a part of Anne's work playing the roles of unnamed source, crack plant detective, dedicated researcher and ruthless editor. Even though we live hundreds of miles apart, we've got something to share and strengthen our friendship.

At right is a picture of Anne's mystery plant from last week. I know what it is, but let's see how good you are -- Latin or common name?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Picking Favorites

In casual conversation, a friend asked me last week what my favorite plant is. Is it even possible to have a favorite? Isn't that like asking which child do you like best?

But as a landscape designer, I must have quick 30-second answers ("elevator talk") to many random questions and ensure that my potential clients think I know lots about plants and gardening and diseases and pests and anything else that grows or happens to be outside.

Fortunately, I had an afternoon cup of coffee and was somewhat clear-headed at the moment and shared with her my favorite plant for the day (whew!) as I had clipped some hellebores (see previous post) to float in a small bowl on the table.

Cornus florida in bloom through my bedroom window

Today, my new favorite plant is the native dogwood tree (Cornus florida) which has peaked with it's creamy white blossoms (they aren't really flowers, ask me for more details if you really care) and chock-o-block chunky grey bark. I love seeing them on the edge of a forest (or driving down I-95 in Virginia--and the dogwood trees in bloom would be the only thing to enjoy about that trek) -- the blossoms look like they are floating serenly through the trees.

What is your favorite plant today?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Let Them Eat Cake!

In my kingdom, Ina Garten isn't just a Barefoot Contessa, she's the Queen of Manolo Blahniks and Jimmy Choos!

For the second time in a mere ten days, I've baked her Double-Chocolate Layer Cake, with chocolate butter cream icing, no doubt. I do love to bake, but this cake has turned out flawless, both times. And it's not nearly as difficult as trying to walk in stilettos (which I try not to do, especially in the kitchen or the garden.) No matter how well a recipe reads, I'm always very skeptical of having enough frosting because I have to fend off 30 little and 10 larger fingers that live in my house and try to sneak a taste when my head is turned.

(Non sequitor Moment of Humor -- Q: "Mom, do you eat cake with your fingers?" A: "No, I like to eat my fingers separately.")

Many times I have scrambled to find something to fill in the gaps between the bottom of the cake and its plate to hide bare spots. (Pansies and wild violets make a nice filler this time of year.) Oh, this recipe offers plenty for "sampling" and a generous frosting of the cake too!

Double-Chocolate Layer Cake

from, recipe by Ina Garten


1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

2 cups sugar

3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup buttermilk (substitute 1 cup milk, 1 Tablespoon white vinegar)

1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup freshly brewed coffee (substitute 1 cup very hot water)

6 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter at room temperature

1 large egg yolk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup plus 1 Tablespoon confectioners' sugar, sifted

1 Tablespoon instant coffee granules (substitute 2 teaspoons very hot water)


Make the cake.
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 8-inch round cake pans and line them with parchment paper, butter the paper. Dust with flour, tapping out any excess.

2. In a bowl, use an electric mixer (preferably with a paddle) to mix the flour with the sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt at low speed. In another medium bowl, whisk the buttermilk with the oil, eggs and vanilla. Slowly beat the buttermilk mixture into the dry ingredients until just incorporated, the slowly beat in the hot coffee until fully incorporated.
3. Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake for 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Let the cakes cook in the pans for 30 minutes, then invert the cakes onto a rack to cool completely. Peel off the parchment paper.

Make the frosting.

1. In a microwave-safe bowl, heat the chocolate at high power in 30-second intervals, stirring, until the most of the chocolate is melted. Stir until completely melted, then set aside to cool to room temperature.
2. In a bowl using an electric mixer fitted with a paddle, beat the butter at medium speed until pale and fluffy. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and beat for 1 minute, scraping down the side of the bowl. At low speed, slowly beat in the confectioners' sugar, about 1 minute. In a small bowl, dissolve the instant coffee in 2 teaspoons of hot water. Slowly beat the coffee and cooked chocolate into the butter mixture until just combined.
3. Set a cake layer on a plate with the flat side facing up. evenly spread one-third of the frosting over the cake to the edge. Top with the second cake layer, rounded side up. Spread the remaining frosting over the top and side of the cake. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before slicing.

Make ahead: The frosted cake can be refrigerated for 2 days. Let stand for 1 hour before serving.

Note: Not only is there no way on earth I'd give extra caffeine to my kids, but in my immediate family, only my daughter and I like coffee or any hint o'coffee flavor or the smell of coffee brewing or even know how to spell coffee, so the substitutes above are my own (well, actually my friend Renee's) modifications.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Little Orphans

Animals are fine by me, and we have one that lives in our house. The kids and my husband indeed are of the animal kingdom, but there are days that they are much more like reptiles (slithering), or birds (constantly eating), or earthworms (wriggling around with nothing but poop and dirt in their wakes). But one so-called "pet" is enough. No strays. No hand-me-down pets. No caving when my son gives me a pitiful pout and tells me for the 1,000th time that our dog needs a friend. My stock answer is that we are the dog's best friends. And that the house rule--one pet--is still in effect.

But plants are a different story. I take in orphan plants and give them a home. (I don
't actually name them, the Latin is enough.) My own garden's design is such that there will always be room for the plant escaping an early death. A client had several Hydrangea quercifolia, Oakleaf Hydrangea, that had been crushed by a falling limb during a thunderstorm. They were essentially missing an arm and two legs, fairly misshapen and surely not worthy of a front garden. The plants were not dead, just in need of a year or so of rehab, which I kindly offered them. Today, I made the rounds to check on my rehab patients and was pleased to see their progress. All have new leaves emerging -- and how appropriate for Easter -- unfurling like little hands folded to pray as the days warm.

I even take in orphan plants from the nursery. Technically, they haven't been abandon
ed but rather just up for adoption and like human adoptions, there's a little cost involved. Sometimes I think I understand the California woman who had octuplets this spring: I just cannot have one and wonder about the many others left behind for uncertain fate! I want as many as will fit on my cart, or in the back of my very large SUV (a lot). Today, I adopted a nice brood to fill some bare spaces and containers while I await the return of some late spring perennials.

Here are some helpful hints for great looking containers:
  • Use a variety of colors, textures and sizes (the tallest being no more than the height of the pot). Experiment!
  • Select a color scheme, sticking with either a warm/hot palette (reds, oranges, yellows) or cool palette (blues, purples, bit of yellow), using white and green as neutral.
  • Make sure the plants require similar sun exposure (i.e., don't mix shade plants with sun plants no matter how awesome the will look together - it won't last) and that they will thrive in the location the pot is placed (i.e., don't put shade-loving plants in a pot that will bake on the patio).
  • Pack in the plants! Typically, pots are filled with annuals with a short bloom season and don't have time to grow and fill out like the perennials and shrubs in the garden. Put as many plants into the container as possible (keeping their soil around the roots) for instant beauty!
  • Give the plants a good start with good potting soil, some organic slow-release fertilizer and plenty of water. It's also a good idea to replace the soil in older pots every couple of years -- just spread the old dirt in another spot in the garden.
  • Water, water, water -- every day if it does not rain, and in the morning so the roots have time to absorb the water and are not boiled in the afternoon heat.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Birthday Juice

My neighborhood girlfriends get together periodically to celebrate a birthday over lunch. We used to go out, pretending we were still of the young working set, taking an extended hour away from the office, to get a much needed fix of "girlfriend juice." I remember one lovely spring afternoon, we were enjoying a glass of wine in a trendy little Georgetown cafe when one of my gal pals had the audacity to look at her watch. Within moments -- like cockroaches in a suddenly lit room -- we scattered to cars and carpools and the realities of rearing children. No kiss-hug goodbyes, no oozing out the door, no lazy walk back to work wondering how to hide the wine glow for a couple of hours.

A few years ago, my friend MaryBeth nixed the lunch out and threw her own birthday party. I was the only one who didn't realize it was her birthday until I noticed that everyone else had slyly slipped a card, or a vase of flowers or a small gift on her hall table -- ooops. After a delicious lunch that the birthday girl had ordered and whipped up herself, we laughed about her throwing her own shindig. Her reasoning was sound. She had exactly what she wanted for her birthday, good friends, a yummy meal and no driving!

About six weeks after that, I threw my own birthday lunch. It was May. My garden was glorious. I really just wanted the girls to ooh and aah over my flowers. And boy did they ever! I also prepared exactly the girlie food that I wanted to eat, including what my friends all call the "Nutty Noodle Salad" (the recipe is making it around town). Like MaryBeth, it was one of the best birthday celebrations ever and exactly what I needed. Probably my best gift that day, though, was the homemade chocolate cake my friend Abbie baked.

Since then, we rotate the lunches around to different homes, sometimes hosting our own celebrations, sometimes not, but always a true treat for all of us. It was MaryBeth's birthday again this week (as well as the timeless Jackie's). None of us would even consider missing one of the birthday lunches and the indulgence of just sharing time with good friends. We all believe the most memorable birthday present is the gift of friendship, not something you think about giving or receiving, but something you have to share.

Oh, I brought the nutty salad.

Chinese Cabbage Salad (aka Nutty Noodle Salad)

Nutty Noodle Topping:
3/4 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup sesame seeds (already toasted)
2 packages Ramen noodles, Oriental flavor
2 tablespoons butter

Toast almonds and smashed up Ramen noodles with butter at 275 degrees until light brown (about 10 minutes). Cool, then mix in big ziploc bag, with Ramen seasoning packets and sesame seeds. Set aside until ready to toss and serve salad.

1 cup canola oil
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper

Cook on medium heat until sugar dissolves. Cool, then chill until ready to serve.

2 heads Napa Cabbage, chopped into thin strips (like coleslaw)
1 medium bell pepper, chopped
8-10 green onions, chopped

Toss cabbage, bell pepper, green onions with topping and dressing, then serve.

Falling Apples

I love stormy days. I grew up on the coast of Texas and loved the smell and sound of thunderstorms. So, instead of working, I'm looking at my topiary project that I've nearly killed. Perhaps topiary is a good thing for me because I have an excuse to give it a new shape or form. It's my "experiment."

Topiary? My realm is outside, not inside. In fact, I am a serial h
ouseplant murderer. In efforts to rehabilitate myself, I do not purchase plants that should live indoors -- even my Epipremnum aureum, Pothos Ivy, is a terminal case, only survives because of its weekly injections of care from my housekeeper. But last month, my garden club featured New York landscape designer Natasha Hopkinson who shared the history of the use of topiary in the garden, and then gave a demonstration on creating topiary. Of course, I had to try it myself. It's only been three weeks, but I can already see that topiary is just not my thing (see pitiful attempt at left, compared to lovely examples above).

But what I'm thinking about today is really the garden club. Yes, my mother is in a garden club, and not just any club, a "Garden Club of America" club. She helped get me invited to be in a GCA club too. Oh yes, I'm from the South. Yes, I, like my mother was in the Junior League (don't even ask if you don't know). It's a right of passage.

My siblings and I were my mother's own personal yard slaves. When the pool was closed in the summer (Mondays), we weeded and swept and raked and mowed until our hands bled and knees ached. We had to learn how to keep and eye out for copperhead snakes (and how to kill them quickly) while we worked. We know proper mowing techniques, how to edge a flower bed with a flat spade, and how to clean mildew from brick patios. I swore as a child I would not ever have a garden or a yard, nor would I make my own little cherubs do any of my work. But I do. I love it. I make my children help as much as possible, even if it's just to bring me a glass of water while I toil outside.

I also swore I would never join a garden club. It's for housewives . . . older housewives, who clearly have way too much time on their hands . . . who have a to do list that includes lunch, coffee, prune roses, buy new screwdriver, select paint color for the basement, take divided hostas to neighbor . . .

Wait - that's MY list! I've turned into my mother. Not a bad thing in my book. So I'm embracing it. As I look back on it, it has been a long process and I've noticed little things along the way, like the tendency to dead-head pansies with my thumb, giving a permenant indentation in the nail that no manicure will ever hide. Like volunteering to chair a school fundraising event. Like offering to test a recipe for my garden club cookbook.

The proverbial apple has fallen not far from my mother's tree. I'm just glad she's still here to give me some shade.

Oh, here's a yummy soup to try (it's the one I tested for my garden club).

Mushroom Barley Soup
(from The Frog Commissary Cookbook, by Steven Poses, Anne Clark & Becky Roller)

3 tablespoons butter (2 tablespoons is enough)
1 ½ cups chopped onions (about 2 small/medium onions)
1 cup chopped carrots (about 3 medium carrots)
1 cup chopped celery (about 3 large stalks)
2 teaspoons minced garlic (about 4-5 large cloves)
1 pound sliced crimini mushrooms
3 quarts chicken broth
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon thyme
1 cup pearl barley
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

In a large stockpot, melt butter. Add onions, carrots, celery and garlic and sauté until tender but not browned (about 10 minutes). Add the mushrooms and cook until soft (another 5-10 minutes). Add the broth, seasonings and barley. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 2 hours or until barley is tender. Just before serving, stir in the fresh dill and parsley. Serves 10-12.

For reduced sodium:
Use six (6) 14.5 ounce cans of low sodium broth plus another 2/3 can of water.

Reduce cooking time by soaking barley in water for 2 hours before beginning the soup, then simmer time can be about 30 minutes. Soup can be made up to 2 days in advance and refrigerated and reheated. If it becomes too thick, thin with additional chicken broth.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Call 911 -- It's A Pot Emergency

A client called the other day with a pot emergency. No, not what you’re thinking. She’s putting her house on the market and needed flowers for her garden pots before the hordes of realtors in their Prada pant suits (perhaps Isaac Mizrahi for Target these days) go tramping through her house. Goodness gracious . . . the immediate decline in the value of the house if dirt is seen anywhere, inside or out!

It IS early spring, an entire month before the last frost date, and the nurseries have lots of pansies, and well, that is about it. Nothing against the pansy -- it is my favorite annual with its sweet little face, nodding and smiling, bringing a little cheer to the day. I liken pansies to little winter cheerleaders willing me to go on another bleak March day. A few pansies are fine, but masses and masses of them scattered around the garden can be a bit overwhelming, perhaps even shrill (think Kirsten Dunst in "Bring It On"). Plus, some of my client’s pots are gorgeous cast limestone and required a little more than just pansies.

For her front door, the refined Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruiticosa’ or English boxwood takes center stage among variety of early spring bulbs and perennials, all in tones of white. Plus, a little cheer with pansies to fill the gaps. Formal, but not overly formal, these pots will have blooms until early May.

On her back flagstone patio, I planted four identical pots with Muscari, Narcissus

and again, filled with pansies, for a bright spot on the expanse of gray. These are just for show for the next two to three weeks until they are ready for the next installment of annuals.

My favorite, though, were the studies in texture and color in the pots by her pool house. Helleborus orientalis (see previous post), combined with Heuchera x ‘Black Currant’ and Heuchera sanguinea ‘Canyon Duet’ surround the supremely cool Juncus effuses ‘Unicorn,’ Corkscrew Rush. The contrast in colors -- from eggplant to pale pink and sage with chartreuse, and both dark and cool medium greens -- and the variety of textures -- coarse-leaved hellebores, the dainty flowers of heuchera and another annual, Diascia ‘Darla Rose’ -- will give these pots staying power through Memorial Day weekend.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Hello Hellebores!

Glancing out the door this morning, I caught sight of the first blooms of Helleborus orientalis, my dear little hellebores, also called Lenten Rose, the flowers nodding on their stems in agreement that indeed, spring is here. Usually beginning in late February or early March, these 12" high evergreen perennials bloom for nearly two months, long before the rest of the spring bulbs and flowers begin to show their faces. As their bloom time winds down, the leaves remain a rich dark green, with lighter green new growth. While adaptable to full sun, they prefer to be in medium shade. Mine sit atop a stone retaining wall, under a mature dogwood tree, allowing a better view of the flowers, and are mixed with hosta, brunnera, euphorbia and maidenhair ferns that emerge later in spring.

Snowed Under

Nearly 3 years ago, I planted Corylus avellana 'Contorta', commonly known as Harry Lauder's Walking Stick, precisely for winter days like those last week. The twisted and contorted branches of this cultivar of a European Filbert earns a prime placement in the winter landscape, yet someplace that allows it to serve as a mere backdrop in spring or summer.

Garden structure is most evident in winter and nothing is more beautiful than to see the bones of a well-designed garden covered in a blanket of white. Stone walls, garden sculpture, pathways and evergreens reveal their importance when flowers are still awaiting spring. Here's St. Fiachre, patron saint of gardeners (and taxi drivers) watching and waiting for spring.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


My lawn is a barren wasteland today. If I had Alzheimer's, I'd think I was in South Dakota. But I can see hints of spring in the garden, the tender tips of tulips bursting through the ground, a tease from my peonies that May will be here sooner than I think.

Egads, peonies, tulips . . . bulbs! I forgot all about the new 'Sarah Bernhardt' peonies tucked away in the back of my basement refrigerator. And the sweet little glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa ssp.) and snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) bulbs that were going to greet me with a nodding smile on a day just like today. The ground is frozen solid. Even if I were brave enough to be outside longer than 8 1/2 minutes (and I'm a winter wimp), there's no way any holes can be dug.

Fortunately, there are options for feeble-minded, middle-aged women with too many kids and dogs and jobs.
Galanthus nivalis
The snowdrops and glory-of-the-snow bulbs are not going into their intended home under our mature maple tree until mid-March. Yes, past bloom time. But the bulbs are still firm and not dry, so they will survive if I plant them as soon as I can dig. They'll grow a little, settle into their new home, then go dormant. I will have to wait for their winter greeting until next year.

The tulips I can enjoy this year, but they will be late. I'll dump the dirt out of my larger containers, then refill with (unfrozen) potting soil and plant now with a covering of pansies for color to last until the
tulips bloom.

Paeonia 'Sarah Bernhardt'
The peonies are a long shot. They don't like to be moved, and like to be planted in early fall so they can get established before winter (that is, if you want them to bloom). They also like to be planted in deep soil (but not deeply in the soil, but in soil that has been dug and amended wider and deeper than they are planted). So, I'll use my largest terra cotta containers that I'll fill with half soil and half compost, mixing in a little slow-release fertilizer (I like Osmocote). Peonies should be planted deeply enough so that the "eyes" or buds are about 2 inches under the soil when covered. My hope is that they will survive, green up and then transplant without dying. Stay posted for pictures of the peonies in transition.

I'm really glad I didn't get a manicure last weekend!