Summer of Concord

I know, I know; sounds like the title of a bad romance novel, doesn’t it? But since it’s so damn cold, I thought I’d write about something that always says summer to me the same way strawberries and asparagus say spring. Where I grew up, the houses all had big backyards–at least, they seemed big to us, at the time. The house that backed up directly onto our backyard had one of those dumb split-rail fences (they don’t actually keep anything smaller than a cow or horse in or out, do they?) at the line with our property, and behind that was a grape arbor. A Concord grape arbor, to be specific, which when I was growing up was the only kind of grape anybody knew. When we played hide-and-seek—which we did A LOT, because this was in the days before there were any sort of organized group activities involving grown-ups for kids (except for Little League, and not many boys seemed to do that), so we whiled away our long, long summers playing hide-and-seek and kick-the-can and softball and sardines and like that—the BEST place to hide was in the middle of the grape arbor, scootched down in the dirt, with the ripening fruit hanging all around you, making you dizzy with the smell. Concord grapes don’t taste all that great—when you pop one between your teeth, there’s a hint of the sweet fragrance that’s quickly swallowed up by the green squishy sour pulpy inside, that sort of makes you purse your mouth up. That’s why we could hang out in the arbor and not get caught by the neighbors. We didn’t actually eat the grapes; we just sucked in the scent. It was also a great place to hide because there would always be bees swarming around, so whoever was “it” didn’t really want to get too close. But the bees wouldn’t bother you much so long as you were still, and just crouched there, getting drunk on the rich grape aroma.

We were, in fact, so tormented by the disconnect between the smell of those grapes and their taste that one time, we picked a whole mess of them, swiped some pectin and sugar from my mom’s kitchen, and tried to make the grape-jelly equivalent of sun tea. Didn’t work. Made an awful mess in the Corrigans’ garage, too, up in the top loft where Mr. Corrigan kept his Playboy magazines.

You know Welch’s grape juice? A guy named Welch first developed a way to make nonfermenting grape juice out of Concord grapes, so his church could use it instead of wine at communion. How abstentious.

When I lived in the city, I planted a Concord grapevine out in the backyard, hoping to re-create that scent, but we moved before it ever bore grapes. For all I know, it’s still there today. If I had room for one, I’d sure plant one here at this house. I’d make stuffed grape leaves with the leaves, and I’d move a lawn chair out close to the vine in late summer, and sit and smell the grapes.


Strawberry-asparagus therapy

Everybody on the East Coast is cranky except for the kids, who’ve missed about a month of school since Christmas. And here we have another big storm, the so-called (hah!) “snowicane,” bearing down on us. So far today it’s been only flurries, but everyone is edgy and nervous anyway. We are all so sick and tired of shoveling, and climbing up and over piles of snow, and doing the move-the-lawn-chair-saving-the-parking-spot waltz eight or ten times a day. I was supposed to go to New York City to see an old friend, but cancelled out of fear of either being stuck on an Amtrak train for eight hours (this actually happened to me once) or being stuck in New York City for a week. (That’s never happened to me. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.)

What can you do when spring seems so distant except buy lots and lots of asparagus (the skinny kind), steam it, add a wee bit of butter and salt, and eat it? Why, nothing except to buy four clamshell containers of strawberries–because they finally smell like strawberries, not like nothingness–and eat a whole bunch sliced up at lunch, and then slice up a whole lot more and make shortcake for supper? The proper, Southern kind of shortcake, with sweetened biscuit dough, not some ersatz version made with pound cake or sponge cake—and especially not those cardboardy little sponge-cake rounds you can buy in a package at the grocery store. With, because I’m virtuous, fat-free whipped cream and fat-free frozen yogurt.

And lots and lots of strawberries!

Photo by Ken Hammond.

The carnation conspiracy

No, it’s not the title of the latest Robert Ludlum novel. It’s a serious conundrum. Carnations must be easy to grow, right? I mean, they’re cheap as dirt. Florists practically give them away. You can get a huge bouquet of them for, like, five bucks. They’re so inexpensive that somebody figured, “Hey, why not try dyeing these suckers every color of the rainbow?,” so that now we have bright green carnations for St. Patrick’s Day and blue-and-pink-tipped ones for Easter and black-and-gold ones for when the Steelers get in the Super Bowl, and every other color of the rainbow you could want. They’re obviously sturdy, too. They travel well—hell, you can drop them and not hurt them. They keep for weeks and weeks in a vase of water. They even have–well, some of them, anyway–a lovely, spicy scent.

So–how come you never see carnations in gardens? I’m not talking the little garden pinks that you do see, those low-to-the-ground stubby plants with blossoms an inch or so wide. I’m talking the stalky, long-stemmed beauties you buy at the florist or the grocery store. Have you ever, ever, ever seen anyone actually growing them?

(Absolutely disgusting aside: The word “carnation” means, according to my dictionary, “the variable color of human flesh.” Blech. So maybe we should call these flowers by their other name, Dianthus caryophyllus, instead. Or maybe not. Read on … )

So on the one hand, you have this cheap, easy-to-grow, sturdy, long-lasting flower. You have carnation seeds and even plants on offer from catalogs (though not, I’m thinking, from garden centers, that I can recall). And on the other hand, you have … none of them growing anywhere, ever! They only exist as cut flowers! Clearly, carnations are some sort of manufactured product, the soylent green of the floral world. (Remember? Human flesh!!!)

Think I’m wrong? Have you ever seen long-stemmed carnations growing anywhere? Hah. I thought not.

Photo by Rebecca licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Green bean-counting

Okay, so I finally made my mind up which seven varities of tomato plants I would order from Territorial Seeds: a nice mix of old and new varieties, heirlooms for their beauty and uniqueness and sturdy modern hybrids for their disease resistance. I spent quite a bit of time mulling this over, because except for the occasional accidental invader, tomatoes are the only “crop” I grow, unless you count cut flowers and the occasional sprig of basil as crops. Territorial sells its plants at the very fair price of $3.25, and I was actually filling out the order form when I noticed that the delivery charge for seven plants would be $19.50.

That seems high, but Territorial is all the way on the other side of America, in Oregon, so my little seedlings would have to fly cross-country to get to me. And $19.50 is pretty damn cheap for a cross-country ticket, right? Besides, if you divide $19.50 by three, you get, like (be patient here; math isn’t my strong point) a little less than $3 per plant, so my tomato plants would still only cost $6.25 or so apiece, which isn’t all that much to get the tomatoes of your dreams, not when the tomatoes of your dreams come in cool colors like Oxheart Orange and the very funky Ananas Noire (pictured above), or “Black Pineapple” translated from the French (who aren’t particularly famous for their tomatoes, but follow along here).

Only then I got to thinking about Territorial sending my plants to me via airplane, and, well, frankly, it just seemed like the opposite of something that someone who tries to care about the Earth would do–spent a lot of money to get exactly what I want no matter what it cost or what its footprint might be ecologically. And that seemed really wrong. So I’m not ordering from Territorial after all. (And no offense;  you guys have by far the coolest tomato collection I’ve seen.) I’m going to try to find something similar closer to home, preferably at a garden center that gets its plants grown locally. It won’t save the planet. But it makes me feel a lot less selfish, even if I can’t find Ananas Noire. 😦

Photo courtesy of Territorial Seed Company,

Tulips on Extenz

Okay, cue the Twilight Zone music …

More than a week ago, the day before the Great Blizzard of 2010, my sister Jan sent me flowers. It was a lovely bouquet of Peruvian lilies, a.k.a. alstromeria, and baby’s breath, and some spray roses, and half a dozen pretty pink tulips. The tulips were already fully open, and I figured they wouldn’t last long; tulips never seem to last as cut flowers for me. On the plus side, because I’m so cheap and keep the house so cold in winter, it’s more or less like a flower cooler all the time in here. I set the bouquet atop my dad’s old drum table in the living room, admiring the pretty mix of colors and shapes, and went about my day.

The next day, as previously mentioned, the blizzard hit. I was so glad to have those lovely flowers to look at in between bouts of shoveling out the sidewalk and the cars! The bouquet had arrived with one of those packets of cut-flower food, but I never use that stuff. I think it works best just to change the water regularly and faithfully–and to recut the stems as soon as flowers arrive. This bouquet seemed to thrive under this treatment. Actually, it more than thrived. It GREW. The day after the blizzard, I came downstairs and there was my pretty bouquet of flowers. Only while it had once been ball-shaped, now the tulips were sticking out from the rest of the flowers on top. And over the course of the next week, the tulips stuck out further … and further … and further, until now they’re a good 10 inches longer than the rest of the flowers!

I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. Totally bizarre. Tulips on Extenz!

Photo by Capital photographer @ en.wikipedia licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution 3.0 Unported license.

Packets of glee

My seed order from Renee’s Garden Seeds arrived today, and as soon as they did, I sat down with them at the kitchen table. I went through them all (18 of them!) once, then I sifted through the packets again, admiring the pretty drawings and reading through the planting instructions. I love them all but am particularly enamored of the sweet peas, particularly the ultra-girly ‘Saltwater Taffy Swirl’ shown above, and this calendula, ‘Flashback.’

There’s this sort of mythology about growing sweet pea flowers, started up, I think, by the British, who adore sweet peas but also like to make everything complicated (witness: empires, royalty). I didn’t try growing sweet peas for a long time because I was afraid to, but now I know–they’re easy as pie. I do dig compost in where I plant them, I do start them early, and I do keep the spent blossoms picked. But that’s all I do, and I have little bouquets of sweet peas on my kitchen table from April through at least July every year. And oh, that scent!

As for calendula, they perplex me. I wouldn’t consider my garden complete without them. They’re the simplest thing ever to grow–you just toss the big seeds in the ground–and they self-sow every year for me. Despite this, I’m always afraid they won’t, so I hunt down seed faithfully. It’s surprisingly hard to find, and not much seems to be going on in the way of improvements or hybridization. Granted. these aren’t the showiest flowers in the world, but they sure are reliable. I love them. And they and nasturtiums (well, and cleome–too MUCH cleome) are the last things standing in my garden when frost comes around.

Anyway, I then proceeded to go through all my seed packets a third time, just because it’s so exciting to think about actually getting out and planting, and as I was reading the packets, I noticed that a few of the varieties say you can plant them in the very early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked. By now I was really itching to get planting, and believe it or not, I actually glanced outside, wondering if maybe I would be able to work the ground enough to get the hollyhocks in …

Forgetting completely that there are four feet of snow covering the backyard!

Photos courtesy of Renee’s Garden Seeds,

Flower heads

I’m a bit puzzled by plant catalogs that put together “collections” of plants for you to buy–and plant–together. White Flower Farm is a huge proponent of this; the WFF catalog is full of pre-selected collections that look lovely planted together, with names like “Two to Tango” (a violet-blue geranium and an orange impatiens) and “Hummingbird” (pink begonia, two different coleuse and a sweet-potato vine). These collections are pretty, but really, do people have so little faith in their own ability to create a handsome-looking container or garden corner that they need to be told exactly how to do it? Maybe they do. It’s sort of like interior designers. I honestly don’t think it’s that hard to tell what sofa goes with what armchair goes with what lamp and end table–and isn’t it fun to search and shop till you find just the right addition? And wouldn’t you rather say, “Oh, yes, I found it in an antiques shop in Lancaster” than “My interior designer found it somewhere, I’m not sure where.” But maybe there’s cachet in just having an interior designer. I don’t know. I’m more do-it-myself. Then again, considering the odd green color of my living room, maybe I should hire somebody to at lesat pick paint chips for me.

So while I’ll keep on testing out different combinations of colors and textures and plant shapes for myself, and plan my own damned containers, I must admit that every once in a while, you see something that you probably wouldn’t have thought of for yourself. The lobularia-headed lady above is a perfect example. I love this look! That’s Proven Winners’ “Snow Princess” lobularia, a.k.a. good old alyssum, providing the tresses. Now I just have to keep my eyes peeled for a lady who needs a crown!

Photo courtesy of Proven Winners®,

The corner of Emily and Nicholas

Prejudices are strange. You know how you drive through housing developments sometimes, and you just know the streets are named for the developer’s wife and kids? There’ll be KrisAnn Drive and Jonathan Street and Shelly Circle, and I always think, “Man, what a hubristic smacked ass that developer must be, to name streets after his own offspring and wife.” I can get really worked up about this, to the point that I would never, ever buy a home on a street with a stupid name like that. Who does this guy think he is, Ozymandias? And has he never read that poem, for chrissake?

And yet, oddly, I find it utterly charming when, in a seed or plant catalog, I come across something like, “Famed sweet pea breeder Jennings Coffrey named this large-flowered azure variety ‘Matilda’ for his youngest daughter, because ‘It reminded me of her blue eyes.'” Granted, I don’t know any plant breeders, but they’re not the sort of folks I imagine to be egomaniacs. (I could well be wrong about this.) Certainly, the folks who write seed-catalog copy aren’t egomaniacs, at least on paper; they like to exude that down-home, come-in-and-set-a-spell air. (Especially Amos Pettingill at White Flower Farm. I find his folksiness pretty phony. He might be an egomaniac.)

Come to think of it, I did once interview George Ball, the president of Burpee Seeds, for a magazine article. He was a perfect gentleman in person but later pitched a fit about a very minor point in the piece. But most of Burpee’s offerings have dumb romance-novel-ish names like ‘Watercolor Memories’ phlox and ‘Butterfly Sparkles’ Pentas. Ball wasn’t one bit folksy; he was a highly sophisticated man. But I digress.

I think it’s the ephemeral nature of plants that makes me more accepting of their being namesakes. Though it’s a little creepy, too, to name a plant after your wife, say, and then have it die. Plants do die. So do wives. Maybe ‘Butterfly Sparkles’ isn’t so dumb after all. I only know that I like that little human connection I feel to a breeder when he or she allows me a peek into his or her real, intimate life. Wayside Gardens, a fine if expensive catalog based in the South, used to offer daylilies bred by a monk, Brother Charles Reckamp, named things like ‘All Glorious’ and ‘Heavenly Crown’ (pictured above). I always wanted to buy them, even though I don’t much care for daylilies, just because it seemed very cool that a monk would spend his time that way. (Reckamp, who died in 1996, wasn’t alone; read more about hybridizing men of the cloth here.)

So, anyway, better plants named after kinfolk than streets. Unless, of course, you’re the kid, who might prefer hearing “Turn left on Emily” to “Oh, God, Emily’s got mealybugs again.”

Marshmallows and marigolds

Like lavender and larkspur? No, not exactly. Marshmallows are what psychologist Walter Mischel used in a famous experiment on four-year-olds having to do with delayed gratification. Mischel would sit a kid down in a room and put a marshmallow in front of him (or her), and then explain that he (or she) could eat the marshmallow anytime he (she) wanted after Mischel left the room, but if the kid held off on eating it for 15 minutes, he (she) would get TWO marshmallows. Mischel would then leave the kid alone. The vast majority of the kids couldn’t help themselves; they promptly ate the marshmallow. But a certain percentage were able to distract themselves by singing or talking or looking away from the marshmallow, and were rewarded after 15 minutes with another marshmallow to go with the first.

Mischel subsequently followed up on these kids later in life, and found a clear correlation between the ability to hold out on eating that marshmallow and success in school, college and life. In fact, the kids who held out scored an average of 212 points higher on SAT tests than those who gave in. His experiment has since been reproduced many times over, and its results have been proven again and again.

So what does this have to do with marigolds? Well, when it comes to gardening, I’m not very good at delayed gratification. All winter long, I pore over my seed and plant catalogs. (This actually starts in the fall, when I spend way too much money on spring bulbs.) I then order a whole bunch of seeds–and, in years when I’m feeling flush, some plants as well. These arrive, and I plant them in my garden. I also plant the big box of test plants that the Proven Winners company sends me each year. And then I wait, because it takes a while for the seeds to come up, and the plants are generally pretty small and need to fluff out, and of course the perennials that I already have in are taking their time. The flowering of those spring bulbs helps me hold out a little, buy by Mother’s Day I’m inevitably itchy, and instead of patiently waiting for my stuff to grow, I take a furtive trip, like an addict going to score, to a garden center, buy a lot more stuff than I need, stick it in the ground … and then wonder, three weeks later when everything springs up at once, why I spent so much darned money. The sad truth is, I can’t walk past a six-pack of good-looking marigolds. Even if I’ve already planted a six-pack of good-looking marigolds, you can never tell when you might not be able to find a six-pack of marigolds, so it’s best to grab more while you can, right?

This year is going to be different. This year I’m going to wait patiently for my marshmallow … or rather, my marigolds. Though there is a plant called marshmallow, a.k.a. Althea officinalis, pictured above, with root sap that’s been used in confection-making since Roman times, at least. The French were the first to use it to make what they call pâté de guimave, or mallow paste, known to us as marshmallows. I don’t like marshmallows. I do like halvah, though, and mallow sap has been used to make that Middle Eastern sweet as well. Marshmallow plants, meanwhile, have naturalized in the U.S. and can be seen here on the East Coast in moist, boggy places. The next time I find some, I’m going to make my own halvah with it.

Photo by Alberto Salguero licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License

Those are great melons

Sorry; I know. I know. But I’ve been thinking about melons and serendipity. When we first moved to this house from the big city, my dad asked what I wanted as a housewarming present. I told him a composter. I’m not sure what the allure was; I’m not all that ecologically inclined. Once in a while, instead of washing out an empty peanut butter jar and recycling it, I just heave it in the trash. But my mom used to have a composting heap out behind our house, where we’d throw grass cuttings and dead marigold plants and what-not, and it seemed to me that a responsible grown-up should take the time to compost. I don’t have a big enough yard to have a heap, so one of those black plastic composters would have to do. Pop bought me one, for $99, and we’ve had it ever since. We put all our uncooked kitchen scraps in it–well, the vegetal and fruit ones; no citrus, because I read you shouldn’t compost citrus, and no corn husks, because they never decompose. But everything else goes in, and every once in a while I turn what’s in there over with a pitchfork, and in the spring and fall, I pull shovelfuls of lovely rich brown compost out of the bottom and tuck it around my garden. Every now and then the lovely rich brown compost has, say, a pineapple top in it, but that’s okay. I just stick that back in the composter.

One of the by-products of a composter is unintended plant life. You put rotten tomatoes in your composter, and you’re going to end up with tomato plants coming up where you don’t want them. You scoop the insides of your Halloween pumpkin out into the composter, and you’re gonna find pumpkin seedlings springing forth every now and again. But what really interest me are the melons. We eat a lot of cantaloupe and watermelon and honeydew, and compost a lot of their seeds. I’ve never had a watermelon or honeydew spring up, but I get cantaloupes just about every year. Sometimes they twine along the fences; sometimes they just stretch out all over the ground. I never have the heart to yank them out, no matter where they turn up. And they grow cantaloupes! I’m not real good at telling when to pick them, and I tend to let them go too long, in hopes they’ll get bigger and fatter. But, you know, they’re cantaloupes! And they’re free! Which only makes them taste all the better.

I’ve been thinking about this because the photos of melons in the seed catalogs always look so tempting to me. I especially love an heirloom Russian watermelon variety called ‘Moon & Stars,’ the one that’s pictured above. I might actually break down and order some seed for it this year. It’s both beautiful and sort of creepy/spooky, like Mia Farrow.

Then again, maybe I’ll just leave my melon-planting up to the compost heap.

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