Writings about

the many life lessons

unearthed when we dig

in the dirt . . . and pursue

a range of other interests

in the constantly evolving

garden of life.

Monday, January 30, 2012

It's Winter. But Not in MY House

Can I tell you how hard I work in winter to make it feel like spring indoors?

OK, here goes. My efforts know no bounds; I will cram plants inside our small house until Lyn starts to worry that I'm about to pitch the couch to make room for a few more green things.

I plant myself into corners, resulting in marathon waterings, feedings, groomings. It's a good thing the outdoor garden doesn't need me much this time of year. I would not be available.

So much for sparing down, as I did last spring when I took many plants out for the warm and did not bring them back inside for the fall. The house load was lighter – until I began buying new and different plants. Add those to the existing ones, and I'm guessing I have a net increase. But, I remind myself: I need these plants. You know what I mean.

I do have a history. Back in the late 1980s, when we moved from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta, three grown men spent an entire day just packing the indoor plants I'd grown in our little row house. Now, I have twice as many; I will never move.

I know I am not alone in my excess. Winter, even one like this so-far pseudo winter, has a way of triggering the gardener's need for color, fragrance, blooms. Spring. And, as each day grows just a bit longer and plants begin waking and showing little green growth, that need becomes obsession.

Here comes my obsession, in images. The act of photographing these winter antidotes somehow adds to their power to warm the soul, lift the spirit.

Years of nursing this Camellia japonica 'Bob Hope' pays off big in this season. Outdoors until autumn, it comes in to bloom, starting December-January. While not sweetly fragrant, the blossoms exude a delightful earthy smell. I planted the mate to this one outdoors, not expecting it to survive the winter, as it would in the South. But, with climate change, it's alive and budded. Stay tuned.
Primrose may not get much respect as a house plant elsewhere, but in my house, it's big. I buy them each winter and plant them in the garden in spring.
Years, ago, I played with hydroponics. Now, again. Hyacinth fragrance delights, as long as it's one to a room – with no paperwhites.

I'm growing several no-name orchids that appear to be hybrids with parents including cattleya, brassia and dendrobium. Whatever, they hit the spot.
I'd survive winter without orchids, but I'd rather survive with them. The jewel orchid below (Ludisia discolor), a terrestrial, is grown mostly for its foliage, but the long spike is filled with slightly fragrant flowers.
Speaking of foliage, if croton doesn't give me enough winter color, nothing will.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Weird Weather Blues, Part 1

(Read and imagine B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton and all the other great blues artists whose composing and singing I can only dream about.)

Welllll, I woke up this morning, and you know the birds were singing loud.
I say I woke up this morning, and the birds – they were singing loud.

Looked out my window, couldn't see nothing but a sky full of clouds.

I hear that ol' weatherman, and you knowww, he don't make sense.

I listen to that weather guesser, and I tell you he ain't making sense.

Winter's what he calls it, but it's fifty!, and my garden's got drenched.

It's feeling like April in Georgia, and I know that ain't where I'm at.

Ye-e-e-s, feeling like April in Georgia, but that sure ain't where I'm at.

I'm deep up in Connecticut, and the birds – the birds! – standing pat.

Rainy, Foggy Day in Connecticut Might as Well Be April in Georgia

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Tribute to Big Momma's Garden

Most gardens have some appeal in every season, and Big Momma's Garden is no exception.

What is Big Momma's Garden? you may ask. Well, this is the name many Southerners give to a garden that traditionally was built and maintained by a grandmother, known affectionately as Big Momma. Such gardens contain some plants, but mainly they display ornaments – found objects, pieces of art, bought and homemade, recycled materials. Doodads.

Anything goes. I've seen everything from old shoes to wringer washing machines used as planters – or just as decoration. My BMG has wrought-iron fence pieces used as an entryway and as trellises holding more glass bottles.

The bottle fence is inspired by bottle trees, a standard feature in Big Momma's Gardens. According to lore, the bottles attract and capture bad spirits at night. Daylight disappears them.

These gardens originated in times when many gardeners could not afford to buy garden objects like gazing balls, sundials and such. So, they populated their gardens with "pretties," meaning whatever they found appealing, including glass objects that catch the light. Like gazing balls.

Wherever I've gardened, I've created these spaces; I like the way they look and feel, recalling so many I've seen in myriad Southern towns and rural areas, where swept gardens prevailed. For years, my regional bias asserted that only Southerners created Big Momma's Gardens. Then, I discovered they exist in the North, too, including right here in Connecticut.

Moreover, British and the French historically built their own versions, known as folly gardens, a reference to whimsical objects and structures, or follies. As these gardens gained popularity, folks who study such matters came up with an academic name: vernacular gardens. I even thought of calling mine a Big Daddy's Garden. But I don't.

Seminars aplenty have been held to discuss and argue over what to call these spaces, and how to assess their importance. I leave that to others, except to say mine pleases me through its unstructured wildness and its function as a balance to the more structured and groomed front garden, which is Asian-inspired.

Too, my Big Momma's Garden serves as a tribute to all the grandmothers who have helped raise and teach grandsons and granddaughters about gardening and life. 

Now, images from various seasons, including Sunday's snow pictures.

Humans made many ornaments, but nature offers much material, like dead twigs, picked up after several blow-downs.

Metal poles from a friend, painted and used to support a tree.

Below, carpets make a path . . .

. . . to baker's rack, which will hold potted plants, come spring.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Audrey Is Ready for Her Close-Up

Finally, the paphiopedilum blooms. All around it, orchids have been flowering, but not until today did this one, also known as a lady's-slipper orchid, get into the act.

I look forward to it whenever it decides to put up its long spike, topped with a dramatic flower (better growers than I get more than one spike). This orchid reminds me of the star of one of my favorite cult movies, Little Shop of Horrors, about a unique blood-thirsty plant (named Audrey II) that attracts a lot of customers and rescues a struggling florist business but feeds on humans.

Horticultural horror, yes, but priceless entertainment. The 1986 version features a memorable performance by Steve Martin, as a sadistic dentist, with Bill Murray playing his masochistic patient. Did I mention the deep-voiced plant is named after Audrey, played by the stunningly charming, figuresque Ellen Greene?

I'm not the only one with an interest in the cross-pollination of movies and gardening; my fellow gardener-writer Kevin recently weaved together a fine read  about (other) gardening movies. That piece is now showing on his blog.

Meanwhile, my non-carnivorous Audrey is in full flower and ready for her close-up. And, profile, and . . . well, let's just say once she gets going, she can strike a pose with the best of the Hollywood types. Now . . . roll film.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


What is it about snow?

No matter how many winters I see, I'll never take snow for granted. Especially the first snow of the season. Winter cold was a long time coming this season. And, we hadn't had snow in Connecticut since the Halloween surprise.

Well, today I awoke today to another snow surprise. I had figured we might get a dusting, which would be gone before noon. No. I went to a downstairs window to get my first look at the front garden, and here's what I saw:
 Then, across the room, looking through another window:
There's something about snow that invites you to get out in it, feel it, even as you realize that in excess, it will make you hurt as you shovel, sweep, melt, trying to get rid of it. Today, I knew this was a friendly snow, several inches that wouldn't last forever in above-freezing temperatures. So, I went outside, stopping by this dark stone that sits by the garage, a miniature mountain.
Then, down the driveway, to a space covered by trap rock, which in turn is itself covered by snow. In the middle of this stands a stone mushroom, today a snow-capped mushroom.
My walk almost over, I come to the weeping larch, beautiful and interesting in all seasons. And today it demonstrates why I love cameras; I can look at this image over and over, knowing the larch will never again look exactly this way.
Snow made the moment. So what is it about snow? Maybe it's the reassurance that in these times of undeniably strange weather, something feels and looks familiar, the way it always has. A snow, a day, a walk.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Better Way to Herd Leaves

Many are the reasons to love gardening, but cleaning up in fall and winter is not one of them.

The wealth of trees in Country Connecticut, along with the frequent blowdowns, produced an extrordinary harvest of tree litter in the past several months – led by leaves, leaves, leaves.

Fall came and went, and I was not even tempted to go out and blow them around. I've always been a raking man, as I explain in this 2010 Hartford Courant essay.

As time goes by, even regular raking makes me want to find a better way. Well, I've done it. Instead of getting out there in late autumn, combing over my acre of gardens, I waited for the leaves to come to me, or at least come to places next to the house and behind the garage (below), where I can scoop them up.

We've heard a lot about slow food. This is slow raking.

I've noticed that if I wait long enough, herds of leaves also congregate around trees and shrubs, caught in branches growing close to the ground, such as Japanese maples that spread horizontally.

The trick is to not wait so long that these leaves get covered with snow and ice, as they'd last until spring. Hauling mushy leaves is not the way I want to begin that season. Time's running out; even in this weird winter, I know there will be snow, and there will be ice. Eventually.

The driveway, meanwhile, stays clear, serving as a highway for leaves headed for my roundup sites.

To be sure, tolerating the view of unraked leaves for months requires a good deal of patience, not always given to gardeners. But there's a payoff: accomplishing more in less time. As I grow older – and wiser? – I might move past even slow raking. And, not rake at all, letting nature compost my leaves in place.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Wattles, I learned a while back, are not just those colorful growths hanging from the necks of turkeys.

Years ago, I visited a Georgia garden whose dominant feature was a 3-foot high structure made by weaving branches together – a wattle. As soon as I saw that  wattle, I went home and built one at my cabin in the North Georgia mountains.

And, here in Connecticut I built one almost 10 years ago. It rises and falls, much like a compost pile, as old material decays and new material is added. With so many storms and my constant pruning, the wattle is constantly renewed.

Wattles probably started when people clearing land or cleaning up from storms cut brush and branches and saplings and branches, then piled them up in some convenient place. Then, I'm guessing, they began intentionally placing interwoven tree and shrub parts along property lines to define them, much like the beloved stone walls here in New England.

These days, stone walls are valued more for their design features than for fencing in cattle. So, too, I suspect, wattles are more prized for their look than for marking the land or keeping the cows enclosed.

For me, design has always been the thing. I like the way a wattle looks on the land; there's something ancient and natural about the interlocking branches, strong, but not industrial. Moreover, a wattle provides shelter for birds and small animals, especially during hard winters.

Do wattles attract unwanted rodents?

No, I've never seen any evidence that building a wattle is inviting an army of rats. I have seen birds swoop down onto my wattle, then make their way inside.

When I wrote about my first wattle, back in the 1990s, a Georgia man who was unabashedly plain-spoken, responded: "You may call it a wattle, but out here in the country, we call it a brush pile."

Hmmm. Brush pile? Or wattle?


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Bonsai Driven to Garage, But Oh So Late

If I want examples of how unusual the weather has been, I need only look to my bonsai. Typically I leave the outdoor bonsai out until they go dormant as  temperatures stabilize in the sub-freezing to 40-degree range. Then I put them in the detached garage to protect them from dessicating winds. Typically, that's sometime in November.

Little has been typical about Connecticut weather for a while, however. It's been wetter and warmer than usual, so warm that my bonsai didn't go into the garage until the first week in January. That's later than ever.

This morning's temperature sank to 8 degrees at my place and didn't get out of the 20s. Warmer times likely will make a hasty return, but no matter; once inside the garage, these plants are not coming out until spring.
Above: Quince in Spring 2011; Below: False Cypress

Spring is when I'll once again place the bonsai on the stands I fashioned from wrought-iron fence pieces, cinder blocks and cypress tables. Last spring was the first year I displayed them this way – gathered in one area instead of scattering them throughout the garden.

Once they go dormant, they they need little watering, only about once a month. They can live in virtually no light, but are OK with whatever sunlight comes through the garage windows. When they start to put out new growth, I'll know it's time to put them outside again.

Meanwhile, inside the garage, bonsai in some ways mirror my plants in the spaces outside the garage. The pines and cypress look just like those in the ground, fresh and green.

The deciduous plants, such as azalea, cotoneaster, quince and Japanese maple, look bare and bony. The plants, some on a white table, others scattered along the walls, or on stands, bring reassuring life to the garage, which usually serves as a potting shed and storage space for tools, soil and such.

Outside, the display area stands bare, much like the spared-down spaces in the rest of the garden – an architectural reminder that winter at last has made its appearance. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Eating in the New Year, Cont.

The traditional New Year's Day feast amounted to the celebration of a beginning, yes. It also signaled an end:

After a couple of weeks of eating as if I were in competition, I have come down from my tower of excess and resumed some semblance of moderation. This, despite my credo: Moderation in all things. Including moderation.

I do feel good and righteous and am able to work and play longer when I start the day with one of my breakfast constructions. This is an early-morning counterpart to a kitchen-sink soup; whatever is around and tasty and maybe healthful on a given day is what goes into the construction.

A gift shipment of pecans increased my stash enough that I'm able to go crazy with nuts. And, though the fiber cereal is roundly disparaged as "cardboard" by some foodies, I like the stuff. The creamy whiteness is not whipped cream; it's yogurt.

On some days, I add cow's milk; on others, soy milk. I've tried rice milk. Too watery for me. The construction parts in the picture can be adapted to many of my favorite breakfasts, including quinoa and brewed oatmeal – oats soaked in milk for 30 minutes – and a winter favorite, steel-cut oats, cooked into a porridge.

So, away with the big fat holiday leftovers for breakfast, the full cholesterol meal of eggs, bacon, English muffins slathered with butter. Hail to the cardboard! Until the next day of celebration.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Dinner Feeds the Soul

In a world filled with change, speed and newness, New Year's Day dinner always reminds me that some parts of life remain comfortably constant; for as long as I can remember, the first dinner on the first day of the year has been the traditional Southern meal – even when I lived in the North, as I do now.

Born in Alabama, I have also lived in Mississippi and Georgia, amounting to a Dixie trifecta. Sprinkled among my times in those states were stints in Illinois, New York and Ohio, among other places.

No matter where I was, on New Year's Day, I was always at a table that featured the foods that I grew up knowing as the good-luck meal: collards, which represent folding money, and black-eyed peas that stand for change. Eating these two are supposed to bring good financial fortune in the coming year.
Collards Cooking With Garlic, Ham Bone

Other cultures also historically celebrate the new year with lucky meals; for example, as a boy soldier in Germany back in the 1960s, I learned that Germans' favored sauerkraut, which, like collards, symbolized money.

Whether any of us reap financial success from this meal seems less important than the fact that it gives us a good start in the new year. As my wife Lyn puts it: "It soothes us and puts us in our place." To be sure, this meal is good for the soul, and the place it takes us is a happy one.

Of course, this Southern meal has to include pork. The pig. We favored pork above all else in my family, and the saying was: "We eat everything but the oink." Too, in the old Southern style, this day's dinner comes early – just after noon; the evening meal is supper.

As the Southern half of the family (Lyn was born in Ohio), I have the pleasure of preparing the meal, everything except the corn bread, which Lyn does best, adding to her qualifications as an honorary Southerner when we lived in Atlanta during the 1990s.
Meal of Fortune? Eating It Sure Makes Us Feel Fortunate

So, today in Connecticut, we welcomed in this new year as we always do: with the cornbread, the greens and peas – and for the pork this year, barbecued ribs. The cornbread, crisp on the outside, soft and moist inside, made delicious sopping of the spicy pot likker. And, as usual, we washed it all down with champagne, our drink of choice with this meal.

Mother and Dad could not afford to drink champagne, but they taught me how to live a champagne life on beer money. Even if it's only on the first day of the year.