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.