Color in the Garden

Having things in bloom in the perennial garden at this time of the season is a challenge. The asters, anemones and hardy chrysanthemums (now called dendranthemums) aren’t yet blooming and the roses are behaving erratically. There is, of course, rich vibrancy in the great swathes of golden rudbeckia, the tall sprays of violet, purple and white buddleia, the wands of late blooming hostas and the soft lavendar spikes of perovskia but much of the richness and variety that provides a sense of abundance in the garden during the summer is receding.  And so we are grateful for the annuals and tender perennials that add color and texture to the landscape at this time of year. We rely on the heavenly scented Gem Series marigolds with their tiny fragrant (edible) flowers in lemon and tangerine colors (there is a red but we haven’t tried it; maybe next year) forming nice billowy clumps, and tithonia, the so-called mexican Sunflower, with its velvety stalks and rich orange daisies. The dahlias are doing their best, but the deer seem to be always one step ahead of us and them. The same can be said for the sunflowers, adding the goldfinches to the list of predators. The zinnias are going great guns and I wonder why I restrict them to the cutting garden and don’t sow a few seeds in the borders…..hmmm, deer again.  The china asters are just beginning to flower in the cutting garden which will bring a smile at the bedside table but contribute nothing to the borders. Cleome continue to do their thing, albeit in a more subdued manner, and ask little in return.

This year, on a lark/impulse purchase, we picked up some packets of seeds for pelargoniums (what many think of as Geraniums), celosia (aka; Cockscomb), and coleus and threw them into some potting soil in the greenhouse. Wow! How great is this?! These have proven to be some of the most colorful and arresting plants in our gardens. I’ve come full circle in my thinking about annuals and tender perennials. In the past I’ve thought of their use as a sort of cheating, something of a cheap (or expensive) trick to create the impression of abundance.  Further contemplation leads me to the obvious; I’ve always associated annuals and tender perennials with bedding plants; the sort of thing one sees, nowadays, at golf courses or shopping malls.

How wrong I’ve been. The annuals and tender perennials can add volumes of vivacity to a perennial border at very little cost and for months of beauty. We are sold and committed, and we intend to include more of these treasures in our clients’ gardens in the future. It’s exciting to discover ways of expanding ones’ palette and finding complementary plants to create variety and freshness in a perennial border from year to year and we are going to be paying much closer attention to this from now on.

The Harvest. Yes We Can!

I recently shared a link on Facebook about Coloradan school cooks  who are preparing meals from scratch  for their students.  I’m interested in this, and am particularly intrigued by how this could connect with schools that subscribe or participate in Community Garden programs. Its a sticky-wicket. When much of the harvest occurs when the kids are on summer vacation what does one do with all the good, wholesome produce?  I’ve not properly researched this and I’ll bet there are some clever solutions out there, so please, e-mail me with whatever you know about the subject. In the meanwhile, I’ll tell you how we deal with the excessive abundance that we’re not able to consume as fresh produce, i.e., food preservation:

  • Zucchini. We grate it and freeze it. It goes into zucchini bread or curries, which we adore.
  • Tomatoes. Yes we can! We can them as pieces, whole and as juice. They will make their contribution as a base to soups, stews, curries, pasta dishes and, on non-school days, Bloody Marys.
  • Beans. Freeze them; later to be eaten as a side dish or a stew or curry ingredient.
  • Garlic. Since I’ve mentioned stews and curries several times I might as well give you the drill. We go to an Asian Market and buy  a lot of fresh ginger-root at half the price of the local supermarket. We then puree it in a food processor with the garlic we grow and freeze it in ice cube trays. Each ‘cube’ is equal to the normal recipe amount for a standard curry. When it comes time to prepare the curry, that will be sauteed on the stove and then, left to simmer and cook on the top of the wood-stove, along with all the other preserved vegetables its very easy work.
  • Cabbage. Freeze some. Make sauerkraut with the rest of it. I’m not a vegan. I like sauerkraut and cheese sandwiches, or macaroni and cheese with a side of sauerkraut. Comfort food worthy of a gastronome.
  • Cucumbers. What else? Pickles and relishes. I’ve designed a recipe which I call Saigon Relish which combines Cilantro to a typical relish recipe. It’s good with most everything but can be combined with white wine as a reduction sauce served over poached or grilled fish (particularly salmon) and it contributes a surprising elegance to something that can be done in 5 minutes.
  • Grapes. Jelly and sherry
  • Blueberries. Freeze for muffins in the dead of winter.
  • Basil. We grow three row of its and make gallons of pesto.

The youngest bidder at the Middlesex Livestock Auction

Alas, I’ve no photos of this special young man. His name is Michael. We met him at the Middlesex Livestock Auction a few weeks ago when we brought an installment of, one of many,  ducks to be auctioned off. This is not an enjoyable experience for us. We love these gentle, sweet creatures, and their mammas who hatched them. We part with them  out of necessity, not a desire to get rid of them. Yes, we could take the eggs away from the ducks when they’re laying, and I suppose that at some point we’ll have to do this, but a broody duck is an awe-inspiring force of nature; beautiful, territorial, gentle, diligent, imploring and protective.

When we first saw young Michael his face was the picture of earnest, youthful concentration as he studiously inspected our three lots of Muscovy ducks through the open-faced, chicken wired containers we’d fabricated for them. (We did this very deliberately, so the handlers would keep their paws off the plumed ones, particularly the scrawny, bedazzle- belted, macho guy who absolutely must show all and sundry that he can conquer a pigeon or, under duress, even a chicken, and who we call ‘the rhinestone cowboy’).

Michael realized the ducks were ours. How could he not? I couldn’t help going over to their boxes and speaking to them out of guilt, saying ” oh, those are good babies. oh its okay, its okay). When Michael asked me about them I was relieved to be able to focus my thoughts on useful human communication and explain that they’d lived outside, on the pond, that they’d not been fed medicated feed (bad for ducks), that they liked lettuce and slugs, etc…. I asked him about himself. He is 12. His parents have a farm and a nursery business in Waterbury, CT. He and his younger sisters help out. They have chickens but he’d like to have some ducks and maybe, sometime, some quail. He didn’t have a pond but could rig-up some kind of water source/kiddie pool for them. We talked about our quail and chickens and our ducks; muscovies and call ducks. He told me that his Dad told him that Muscovies were the best and that they didn’t NEED water; they like it but don’t need it. I agreed.I talked to him about turkeys and he guided me over to a crate to show me some that were being offered. He reached into the crate and picked up the tiny pale creatures, deftly and with purpose. I held one before I mentioned that I was more interested in heritage breeds  and didn’t want the white industrial turkeys because of health problems and the fact that they are incapable of breeding, having been so overbred themselves. He put them down gently and thoughtfully. We parted and the next time I caught sight of him he’d circled back to our ducks, and was, again, peering into their cages and touching them gently.

When the bidding started we were across the room from Michael but we kept an eye on him. He didn’t appear to have any adult supervision but we later learned that he’d been looked after by an elder friend of his Dad’s who brought him to the auction for the first time. We bid on some heritage turkeys and were successful. Our ducks came up for bid and he bid. He was outbid the first round. On the second round we payed careful attention, praying that he would win the bid and he did. We didn’t  stick around for the final lot. We were elated that Michael had become  steward of three of our ducks and thought we’d better leave and keep that happy image in our minds.

Again, today we went to the auction accompanied by a friend, whom we’d told all about little Michael. Again, with barbarian-proof cages for 4 lots of three ducks to a cage. They were calm, graceful, poised and beautiful; clean, preened and utterly trusting. Who do I see but Michael! (At first I spot the bright yellow, “NO FARMS; NO FOOD” T-shirt.  We greet one another, shake hands and he tells me that our ducks, now HIS ducks, go into their own house at night on their own and that they have a little pond. Oh joy! I’m so delighted to see him and hear the news that I almost don’t notice that his Dad is with him. I introduce myself and compliment him on his fine young son and we chat about quail, chickens and muscovies for a while, until his lovely daughter Madison, pulls him away to check out some rabbits. (Michael is already a regular and is off to check under the lids of all the boxes and crates. Later we meet again at one of our crates and he asks if they’re ours. Again the studious, intent inspection.

The bidding was started with a bin of worms. This was received with laughter by everyone there, except for the bidder, who paid $6.00 for his bait ( I hope it was bait).  Bids for our ducks were crazily erratic. One lot went for $6.00 per duck. The next for $15.00 per duck. The third for $13.oo per duck. But then we spied young Michael bidding on the last lot of three. We were transfixed. Oh, please let him get them, please let Michael get them. When the auctioneer nodded towards Michael and said “$11.oo”, I burst into instantaneous applause, as did Andrew and our friend. I’m not sure that anything like that has ever happened at the livestock auction but there we stood, 3 of us, applauding as loud as we could with utter delight that Michael was the winner and every face was lit up with a befuddled, uncomprehending but genuine smile and we gave Michael the thumbs up. Yes, even the rhinestone cowboy had a weak moment and turned his face towards us and gave an air-pump!

How I think about designing gardens…

Recently installed, this garden will take a year or two to fill out and come into its own.

Every request to I get to design a garden fills me with excited anticipation.  I rejoice at an opportunity to create a destination that did not previously exist. In this sense, it is similar to creating rooms. Interior, exterior…it’s the same to me. I’ve only recently come to discover that it’s the same as painting and this realization has clarified my thoughts about my own particular creativity and the ephemeral and difficult to describe thing that I aspire to. It’s an opportunity to create a kind of beauty that evokes an emotional response. I have difficulty defining this. Impressive, grand gardens are not  foreign to me. I like them, too.  But, it’s the intimate, contemplative, richly varied yet harmonious, inspired, cohesive and yes, exuberant , and, dare I say, ‘traditional’ garden that I want to see. In art history terms (painting, that is), the gardens I try to create would evoke names like Chardin, Vermeer, Monet,  a gentle sort of moody, static, elegant repose; floriferous and uplifting.
I have a landscape designer friend who is a great advocate for conceptual, avante garde gardens. She attends all the important English and French shows and keeps up on internationally known, cutting-edge landscape architects and garden designers who are creating ‘salt’ gardens, or vertical urban orchards, or gardens made of lights, teepees, metal cutouts woven into chain link fences. She thrusts herself, with the unceasing energy of a hummingbird, Slam! Bang! into the middle of it and I admire her for it. I LOVE her blog and feel honored to be able to keep up with the garden design trends through it.  I am not, however, a conceptual artist. I get it but unless the elements of natural beauty are there to enhance and enliven the idea, I quickly lose interest. I don’t want to create clever, self-conscious, intellectually driven spaces.

I want the magic of Bach or Vermeer or Yeats. No rare plants for the sake of it, no clever ‘tongue-in-cheek’ juxtapositions, few poetic combinations that will only be memorable through a macro lens, no showmanship or valedictorianizing. In the spaces where I want to tread or sit or ponder, I yearn for (and aim for) cohesion, vivacity, color, abundance, respite, …..that’s what I like.

Andrew and I recently designed and installed the new garden pictured above for a client, whose remark upon seeing it was “this is a magical place”., and that’s exactly what we were aiming for.