26 January 2008

winter flower

When we’re not here we set the thermostat at 50 degrees, which may be just what this potted rosemary plant needs (that and spending the winter next to a large, bright-but-not-sunny window): It’s covered with blossoms. (A dark exposure here, unfortunately, but the composition is not dreadful.)

I love winter!

goodbye to an ancient maple

When we bought our house in 2004, one of the many things that we loved about the place was the two ancient maple trees at the bottom of the driveway. Ringed by a very primitive stone wall, they were the guardians and greeters of Pleasant Hill. We didn’t worry too much about them, because, well, they had stood for a hundred years, probably, and would probably stand a while longer . . . even though the one on the right had some dead branches on it and dropped its leaves a little earlier than the one on the left.

So we were a little surprised one Saturday morning in October 2006, while B was settling in to his new job in the city and we were living temporarily at my aunt’s and uncle’s apartment in Brooklyn, when we had a phone call from our friend Betty upstate, who said, “What a storm we had last night! Say, has anyone told you that one of your trees has fallen down?”

Well, no one had. This sounded like big news. Betty told us that there had been a tremendous amount of wind the night before, that power had gone out for some of our neighbors, and that our tree had fallen about as perfectly as it could have: right across the lawn; not on the house, not on the electric wires, not on the telephone wires, not on the driveway, and, finally, not on the road. Even though she reassured us that everything was fine, we rushed to the car and drove north to the house as quickly as we could to inspect the damage.

The tree lay across the lawn, looking as if a giant had snapped it in half and thrown it down. The force with which it landed drove some of the branches a foot into the ground. Pretty impressive, I must say.

Also impressive was the fact that the core of the tree was almost completely rotten. This tree should have come down a long time ago. Our house’s previous owners hated to cut down such an old tree, and we did, too. So we let nature do the dirty work.

There wasn’t a whole lot we could do with the debris. Our chainsaw is small; it handles branches maybe six inches in diameter. Some of the ancient maple’s branches were a foot thick, and the trunk was considerably thicker. Betty arranged for her handyman to come and cut up the wood and cart it away to be used by friends who burn wood instead of oil. We asked if he would take down the rest of the tree for us, too, but he said no because one very large, tree-sized branch extended over the road. Better, he thought, for a professional to take that part down.

So for the past year we looked at the sad, broken tree, and finally this fall I called the Washington County Department of Public Works and talked with the man who makes the tree-cutting arrangements. I asked him whether the county might cut down the rest of the tree. Sure enough, it was close enough to the road that Washington County would take care of everything. Did we want the wood, or would we let the department take it to heat their shed? Take it away, B and I said.

Last night I drove up to the house (B stayed in the city this weekend) and, lo and behold, the tree was gone. Whoever the Department of Public Works hired to cut it down did a remarkably clean job. All that’s left is the stump, a little sawdust, and some tire tracks across the snow.

The other ancient maple endures, though she looks a little lonely without her brother. I think she’s a pretty healthy old gal, but we need to have a tree specialist take a look at her to confirm that.

This spring we’ll have the stump removed (but not before I try to count the rings), and then we’ll plant a sugar maple. Maybe it will last for the next hundred years.

24 January 2008

moved and planted, fall 2007

In addition to moving two David Austin roses (“Evelyn” and “Abraham Darby”)* to a sunnier clime, Phlox paniculata “David” to the front of the border, and the Oriental poppies to the back; thinning the Siberian iris and replanting them (more on that later); and planting 12 catmints (bought for a dollar each) next to the newly planted Clematis paniculata on the L&S slope, I ordered and planted the following:
  • 10 black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)
  • 20 Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica)
  • 10 royal fern (Osmunda regalis)
  • 10 Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum)
  • 25 Allium moly
  • 25 guinea-hen flower (Fritillaria meleagris)
  • 25 grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum)
  • 25 Siberian squill (Scilla siberica)
Fingers crossed that all of these were able to get settled in before the ground froze. We’ll see come spring!

* From the literature provided with these roses we bought in the late summer of 2004:
  • “Evelyn” is the most fragrant of the English roses with its strong peachy scent. Large, ruffled, rosette flowers with a distinct button eye are produced in subtle blends of apricot with a hint of yellow and turn pure pink later in the season. The flower—color: apricot-pink; fragrance: strong peachy; bud form: rounded; bloom size: 3"–4"; petal count: 50. The plant—height: 5'–6'; stem length: 8"–12"; foliage: medium green.
  • “Abraham Darby” is a true old rose formation with a strong, delicious fragrance. Exceptionally large blooms are deeply cupped and loosely filled with petals of peachy-pink with a yellow reverse. Arching canes can be trained against a wall or trellis. The flower—color: peachy-pink/yellow reverse; fragrance: strong fruity; bud form: classic old-rose; bloom size: 5"; petal count: 70. The plant—height: 5'; stem length: 15"; foliage: leathery, glossy, dark green.

who knows—

—but that this interlude from "Sesame Street" back in the 1970s is what got me interested in plants.

23 January 2008

pies: post-mortem

Well, now I know what a tough crust tastes like. They were kind of salty, too. Disappointing.

The buttermilk sweet potato pie didn’t taste like a buttermilk pie or a sweet potato pie, but rather a strange, insipid combination of both. Not pleasant to my tastebuds. Then I talked with our friend Betty who hosted the dinner party, and she said she loved it! And the saffron color that I thought was so beautiful she thought was a little offputting. She said she’d gladly eat the filling out of a little custard cup with some sour cream, pecans, and brown sugar on top. Hmmm.

The sorghum pecan pie? Well, underneath the gorgeous dark-brown top was a sad mud puddle of very strong-flavored filling. Ever try to cut a wedge of mud puddle and plate it up? It’s difficult. B did not chop the pecans, as the directions specified, and the sorghum we used on closer inspection turned out to be sorghum-flavored syrup (i.e., corn syrup with sorghum mixed into it), so these two variables might have had something to do with the pie not setting up, but I don’t know. And that doesn’t explain the pie’s very strong—almost unpleasant—taste.

On the basis of these two recipes, then, I’m not certain I’d trust the Lee Bros. on a dish that required a more significant outlay of time and expense (e.g., a main dish). They’re wonderful writers, though.

And, of course, we violated yet again (we’ve done this before) the most important rule of entertaining: Never serve something to guests that you’re making for the very first time. Even if it’s just a variation on a recipe you’ve made many times in the past.

I do want to work on my pie-crust-making skills, though. Can’t blame the Lee Bros. for those tough crusts.

20 January 2008

pies

B was browsing in the Strand bookstore a few weeks ago and stumbled upon an amazing-looking cookbook, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, written by two brothers who started a Southern foods mail-order business back in the 1990s and moved from shipping Southern food to writing about Southern food. The book is large, expensive, and gorgeously illustrated. B didn’t buy it then, but I subsequently checked it out at the library. We brought it north this weekend, and B decided to try two of the pie recipes today: sweet potato buttermilk pie and sorghum pecan pie.

The Lee Bros. seem to be anti-using any kitchen convenience invented after 1920. This means no Pillsbury crust (my favorite!). Their directions involve whisking egg whites with an actual whisk rather than an electric mixer (we forwent that injunction), and cutting fat into flour with a pastry blender (“until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs, with a scattering of pea-sized pieces throughout”). I make biscuits that way (rubbing the fat into the flour with my fingers), but pie crusts are a more daunting prospect to me, for some reason.

I’ve read about “tough” crusts and how to avoid them (although, come to think of it, I don’t really know what a “tough” crust would taste like, and I’ve never left a crumb of pie on my plate because the crust was too tough), by, for instance, keeping the ingredients cold, not handling the dough too much, having a light touch with the rolling pin . . . and it all seems sort of overwhelming.

Whatever.

I made one of the crusts the Lee Bros. way and ended up using the food processor to finish it up (I was having a hard time rolling out the pile of crumbs that resulted from tossing the fat/flour mixture with forkfuls of cold water). The other I did in the food processor from the start. They both eventually turned out fine. And, truthfully (so long as my touch was light enough!) I think they’ll probably taste about 100 times better than the Pillsbury crust (again: My favorite!), so no harm done.

B made the pie fillings this afternoon, and they, truly, are a sight for pie eyes. The sweet potato buttermilk pie is the color of a Buddhist monk’s robe; quite pretty. B and I tasted the uncooked filling, and it’s tangy and sweet, but not too sweet. The sorghum pecan pie is very dark (the Lee Bros. recipe calls for dark brown instead of light brown sugar and sorghum instead of light corn syrup), and it has a caramelized sugar smell that makes my mouth water.

We’re taking both to our friend Betty’s house, along with a pot of collard greens. She’s hosting a Southern-themed dinner party tonight: fried chicken, biscuits and honey, collards, grits, coleslaw, lemonade soda, coconut cake, pie . . . we are a-quiver in anticipation.

17 January 2008

buh-bye christmas tree

Last Saturday morning, I took down the Christmas tree. I didn’t want to wait until this weekend, because by Saturday, 19 January, the tree’s presence would feel like a rebuke. Besides, who wants to spend one morning of a holiday weekend undecorating the tree?

What a nice tree we had this year—a fresh, open, and very fragrant Balsam fir. Back in November, when Christmas was still just a blip on the radar screen of the end of the year, B and I decided that we were not going to get a tree, because we wouldn’t be at Pleasant Hill on Christmas Day, it was a lot of trouble, the cats might knock it over this year, et cetera. But then on the Saturday before Christmas he looked at me, and I looked at him, and we got in the car and drove to a tree farm on Route 22. Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without a tree in the window, no matter where we were on the day. We used minimal decorations, but lots of lights. It was beautiful.

But it was not so beautiful last Saturday morning. For a fresh-cut tree, it sure dropped a lot of needles. I gathered them all up in a glass mixing bowl and put them on the kitchen table. When I come in the back door now, I get a nice whiff of balsam.

And wow, look at the needles on the floor. Dale looks a little taken aback, doesn’t he?

random thought

On the way to the subway this morning. I was thinking of the various things I do that are petty or wrong, and I realized that when I do them I am not honoring God. More than what would God like, it’s as if I’m dishonoring myself (his creation), everyone else (also his creation), and the world. Self-respect then would seem to be respect for all of creation. Somehow this felt a lot more profound to me as I was descending the steps to the 14th Street subway platform.

16 January 2008

dahlia wish list

I spent a lot of time on the subway this past fall looking at the Old House Gardens catalog. It gets rave reviews from Dave’s Garden members, and the bulbs and tubers they sell look wonderful. This is my wish list for the spring, which I had better order soon or risk getting a sold-out message. The spring dreaming has officially begun! (Descriptions and pictures below are not mine, of course; they’re from the Old House Gardens Web site.)

Kaiser Wilhelm (1893): Did you see the “Kaiser” featured full-page in Horticulture this past April? A rare souvenir from a lost age, it’s the most antique looking of all our dahlias. With neatly curled petals of custard-yellow brushed with burgundy, and a green button-eye like an old-fashioned rose, it’s a true 1800s “fancy” and one of a bare handful of Victorian dahlias that survive today. To honor the 10,000 lost to extinction (yes, 10,000!), we honored it as our Spring 2007 Heirloom Bulb of the Year. 3", 4-5', from Oregon.

Little Beeswings (1909): A decade ago when I asked in the ADS Bulletin if anyone grew this relic, I heard from just one person, David Murphy. He eventually sent his entire stock to us with a note: “In recognition of your efforts to preserve old dahlias. Their survival now rests in your hands.” Will you help? With its tiny yellow balls tipped with flame-red, “Little B” makes a lively show. It’s a fine keeper, too, so you’ll soon have extras to pass along. 1-2", 3', from Oregon.

Yellow Gem (1914): Exquisite in its symmetry, this perfect little dahlia seems to have been shaped by a jeweler from Middle Earth. Or maybe it will remind you of your childhood backyard aglow with lightning bugs. Either way, it’s one of our oldest and rarest dahlias, and a sheer delight. 1-2" pompon, 3', from Oregon.

One wishes one could grow dahlias successfully in one’s garden. I usually have pretty good luck growing things, but for some reason I have not had a lot of luck with dahlias. I get lots of foliage, and then frost comes in one night on chilly little feet and sucks the life out of all my plants. I had ONE, count it, O N E over-the-top bloom last year before the plant turned to mush overnight. Sheesh.

But that will change this year, of course. There’s a house on the corner of Cross Road and Route 31 nearby with a veritable hedge of Bishop of Llandaff dahlias every year that bloom from July on. If the gardeners at that house can do it, well, darn it, so can I.

Update (11:45 PM): Just ordered these three plus some Zephyranthes grandiflora or pink rain lilies or fairy lilies (1825); figured if I didn’t do it now, I’d be kicking myself later when I went back and found my first choices were sold out for the year.

03 January 2008

december snow

Merry Christmas (I can say that for three more days, after all) and Happy New Year! B and I took these pictures on New Year’s Eve morning, right as the last snowstorm of 2007 was winding down; more snow and very cold temperatures arrived on New Year’s Day. A real one-two punch!