July 26th, 2012
Tomato Times: Livin’ Large

So. Who’s picked the most tomatoes so far this year? Who cares? I don’t because I just picked my first tom this season. ‘Pilcer Vesy’ by  name. One pound of sugary slurpy sweetness the color of a goldfish, and lifted gently from the branch of a 6ft tall plant. If this tomato was a gal, she’d be called “statuesque”. I knocked myself out. Him Indoors was pretty impressed too. It’s a variety we are testing for next year’s tomato story, and THAT is all I will give away.

It deserved a photo so I propped it on my best piece of glass — a ladeedah Tiffany candlestick — and paid homage with my lens. It mesmerised me: The way the sun-kissed skin glowed, its little blemished shoulder turned shyly to the shadow. It rested quietly, demurely even as I captured its tender image — not like some glossy ol’ red Big Boy as thick as a red neck aiming to punch out  my lights….tomato1

The next step was to slice into this beauty. Selecting my sharpest knife I approached with reverence. All too often I’ve been disappointed:  too many seeds, wet soggy innards, mealy flesh. This fruit was as good inside as out.


Next came the all important taste test. But this was not to be just any old chomp-a-slice and see. No! This was the first tomato of the year, and after the Tiffany candlestick, only the best would do: A succulent 6 ounce burger of grass-fed organic Angus beef, with organic trimmings, including a generous shredding of home-reared lettuce-leaf basil, a freshly baked white roll, mayo, not too much ketchup, a shmeer of English mustard (Colman’s thankyou very much), and a slice of Provolone melted into a milky mantle.

Whoooa Buddy! now that’s what I call a meal fit for a tomato.


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July 17th, 2012
Organic Gardening is keeping it Fresh!

Just want to take this opportunity to crow about the third edition of FRESH! Youth Voices for Food & Sustainability. It’s a village effort: many hands pulled together to help teacher Meredith Hill and her 7th grade Food & Sustainability class produce this publication, but OG’s involvement all started in 2010 when she and I met at a New York City Grows event. The rain was coming down in sheets, but the turnout had been amazing. As the day drew to a close, Meredith approached me and, describing her English lit class’s summer study of food sustainability, asked me if there was anything OG could do to help. The kids were visiting farms and organic growers, researching and writing reports, taking photos. Since making magazines is what I do, I offered up the idea of creating an OG junior, inviting the class to come to our offices and learn about the editorial process, as well as have visits to the Rodale Institute for a soil science lesson, the Rodale Family farm where it all began for a lesson in the history of organics in the USA and to the Rodale Food Service to learn about food sheds, local food sourcing and other supply and demand issues.

The class arrived on a hot day in late June. Just as their schoolmates before, the 2012 class had a lot on the ball, they had their questions, their opinions, and most importantly, they had a heavy dose of curiosity, the secret ingredient of a good journalist. It was going to be a great day!

Art Director Gavin Robinson and the Fresh! design team

Art Director Gavin Robinson and the Fresh! design team

Over lunch in the Rodale Café, the Organic Gardening team offered their experience, talking about design, illustration, editing, planning, copy editing and production, as well as marketing and advertising. The results are terrific.

The project has gone from strength to strength. Meredith’s dedication to her students and her passion for giving them the very best learning experience they can have while in her care is nothing short of awe-inspiring; and because of it she is able to draw the best out of each individual and bring them together to create their magazine. Their work together is a perfect testament to what teachers mean to the success of our society and the strength of nation’s future. They deserve our respect and support in whatever way we can give it.

So please, take a moment to listen to the young people are saying, even as you read their words. They are the voice of the future. (Photos courtesy of Michael Harlan Turkell, www.harlanturk.com.)

The Class of 2012 at Rodale with Ethne Clarke

The Class of 2012 at Rodale with Ethne Clarke

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July 12th, 2012
Light in the Darkness

The garden at night is a beautiful thing. White flowers glimmer, owls hoot, scent that is fugitive in the daylight lingers in the air. There are certain plants I grow especially for dusk and dark, such as lilies and moonflowers; Vita Sackville West’s famous white garden at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent in southern England was created as a “moonlight garden”, which is a centuries-old conceit originating in Persia, where enclosures within gardens were planted specifically to be viewed at night. No artificial lighting allowed, just the spectral glow of errant moonbeams puddling on lawns and dappling shrubberies. Ah….

But, since I like to sit out of a cool evening and the silvery moon ain’t always shining on, I’ve tried various sorts of lighting — from Mexican-made sconces with votive candles to big ol’ citronella candles in bright colored buckets (light and almost no bugs, but pungent). But my favorites have turned out to be solar-powered twinkle lights and spots that I received from Gardener’s Supply Company. Many of the solar efforts I’ve experienced have been wimpy, but these fittings really power out the beams. Best of all: Light where you want it, no electricity needed. Priceless.

The twinkle lights I use are detachable from the spikes with which they’re fitted, so that they can be strung like Christmas tree lights around a deck or between uprights. This is the best way to use them: I began by pegging them along the garden path, but they looked too much like a landing zone for alien craft. Very small alien craft…

Twinkle lights are not just for Christmas trees. They provide a kind, soft light for patios — bright enough to see your wine glass.

Twinkle lights are not just for Christmas trees. They provide a kind, soft light for patios — bright enough to see your wine glass.

The silvery grey boughs that uphold the magnolia tree’s canopy over one end of my garden are quite a sculptural, and I have deployed two spots to highlight their form.

This smudgey photo gives an idea of the uplighting effect of the solar-powered spots.

This smudgy photo gives an idea of the uplighting effect of the solar-powered spots.

The ambient light they give off is just enough to illuminate the nearby flowerbeds, so I can see what is where without having to don sunglasses or worry about light pollution, as one might if using incandescent spotlights. There’s nothing worse than trying to enjoy the dark garden when a neighbor’s Kluge lights are burning your retinas. So, if you are going to deploy any kind of lights, step outside the garden and see them as others might. And be sure to check out We Like This in this month’s issue: we’ve found some very cool garden illuminators.

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July 6th, 2012
Lily Love Affair

Last year in October I planted a 25 lily bulbs of one sort: the magnificent Orienpet ‘Lavon’, I planted them in bunches up the front path, across the front of the house, and at the back gate. They have more than fulfilled my vision of walking through a lily grove with blooms at head height so the scent is instantly enjoyable; the stems range from 5 feet to 6 feet, and the blooms, up to six inches across, are richly perfumed of almond and vanilla. They’ve been blooming about a week in the humidity and heat, and are just beginning to drop their petals. What a feast.  Here’ s a photo taken this morning, along with what John Scheepers/Van Engelen bulbs has to say about Orienpet cultivation.

Orienpet lily 'Lavon': a single stem can be six feet tall

Easy Fall Planting
Among the last of the fall harvested flower bulbs, Orienpet Lilies ship in mid-October just as soon as we receive them in our warehouse from the Netherlands. Hardy for horticultural zones 4 through 8 (and maybe even 9), Orienpet Lily bulbs should be planted in the fall when the soil has cooled down to about 55 degrees F (after two weeks of sweater weather when night time temps hover in the 40s). Orienpet Lilies need a minimum of six hours of daily sunlight and well-draining, neutral pH soil.

These 14/16 cm bulbs should be planted 6 to 8 inches deep and 8 to 10 inches apart with the pointed sprouting tip up and the basal plate (bottom of the bulb where the roots grow) down. Planting Lily bulbs in the fall rather than the spring affords them the time to set down roots and get established before the warming spring soil demands top growth. Space the bulbs properly to make sure there is good air circulation between the plants so that the leaves can easily dry off after rainfall. This helps to keep the foliage and plants healthy.

Over time, Orienpet Lilies benefit from a 4-10-6 granular fertilizer top dressing three times a year: at fall planting time, in the early spring when the sprouts emerge and when the flower starts to die back in late spring. (Don’t ever put fertilize in the planting hole: it could cause root burn that would stunt plant growth.) If winters in your area bring temperature spiking and inconsistent snow cover, a 2 inch layer of mulch may be applied after the surface of the ground freezes.

Good mulching mediums include straw, salt marsh hay or oak leaves. Prior to planting, Orienpet Lily bulbs may be stored in a cool, dry place with low humidity, away from heat, frost and strong sunlight at a temperature between 50 and 70 degrees F.

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June 22nd, 2012
Canning Can Do

When I was younger…so much younger than today, I never thought I never needed anybody’s help in any way. In fact, I was only too happy to look for help as I steered my little family craft through the rocky shoals of life. Him Indoors and I were both freelance (a.k.a living life on a wing and a prayer), raising our son, creating a beautiful garden (for me to write about) and much else. One thing I did was bottle, or can, my own produce and the tons of fruit I gathered at the local Pick-Your-Own (strawbs mostly) or from the old hedgerow round the garden (crab apples, damson & gage plums,blackberries, mulberries and such). Then, with my greenhouse-grown tomatoes, pickling cukes and anything I grew that would freeze, jam, pickle or butter, I’d retire to the kitchen range and for hours on end, pick over, slice, chop, measure, and stir — that was the lengthiest bit — turning the harvest turned to preserves. My mother (Irish farmgirl that she was and so resident know it all) helped from time to time with advice and (mostly) admonitions. That jangled my nerves, but the steam did wonders for my complexion, and the goods were, well, good. Amazingly so. To think about it now makes me tired.

Thus, I am full of admiration for the next generation of jam-makers, sweating their toil over a hot cauldron. Or are they? I just encountered the latest bit of technology to ease it’s helpful way into our existence. Check it out: The Fresh Tech Automatic Jam Maker from Ball. Watch closely. One of the selling points is that it will allow the user to “Brag to your Mother-in-Law.” Well, this MiL wants one herself so she can start her own bragging rights  about her homemade chutneys and such.

A little salt added to sweet jam punches up the flavor, but now I can add tang with a pinch of the real thing, rather than from the sweat of my brow. Oh Yes! this is help I can use.

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June 13th, 2012
Colonial Williamsburg Rocks. Gently.

Him Indoors and Herself

Earlier this year … on my 33rd wedding anniversary to be exact… Him Indoors and I traveled to Colonial Williamsburg. I was on the roster for the annual garden conference. In my book, that has been, and remains, one of the highlights of the garden year, and I’m not just saying that for obvious reasons. They have always attracted top notch speakers (ahem…) and the focus is on practical gardening. But given the location, garden history gets a look in, too.Yay!


My ideal garden.

It was fab. The whole thing. We were staying at the Williamsburg Inn, which is the sinecure of homely elegance. Imagine please. You walk through the door and the staff (oh the staff!) say “Welcome home.” It may sound corny, but when you travel as much as I do, it’s terrific. The room was not palatial, but who needs palatial when there is room to kick your shoes off, read the paper, noodle on the internet and NOT have to do it from a supine position on the bed. The bathtub is 6 ft long. And nicely deep. Need I say more? I suppose the only gripe would be the food, which comes from central casting…or kitchen…with a few exceptions. But, when you get to sit on the Inn’s terrace and wallow in the peace and quiet. Who cares? We weren’t there for the grub. But I do recommend the Spa…

I won’t dwell on the excellence of the garden symposium: if you’ve been, you’ll know, and if you haven’t you ought. The thing was, as Him Indoors and I shambled around…we walked everywhere…we delighted in the tranquility. There was NO PIPED MUSIC on the street. I mean! Piped Musak in elevators is bad enough — trapped with the wailing of some godforsaken wannabe rock star — but to be bombarded by it as you walk along a public thoroughfare (okay, malls are privately owned, so they are fully responsible for this wretched noise pollution) is more than a body should have to bear. SHUT UP!

Time out. Deep cleansing breath.

No matter what your generation (or demographic), there is a music track for you. But, these days, when we are all so besotted by knowing where our food comes from and what noxious additives are going into our bodies, spare a thought for the old lugholes. Our auditory sense is being assaulted day in, day out.

My ideal home.

My ideal home.

Enough I say. Musication without representation! Time for a revolution, methinks.

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June 10th, 2012
Frontier of Flavor

Cleaning the kitchen cupboards is not my idea of a thrilling weekend, but that is the task Him Indoors set us, and I have to say, not before time! Tackling the spice and seasonings cupboard was akin to an epicurean archeological dig. Some of the chili mixes went back to the Austinscene era. Seriously….ten years plus. Gads. It also revealed a trove of Indian curry spices and herbs that clung to their flavor by their fingernails. That stuff was O.L.D. No wonder my curries pack not the punch they ‘ere once did.

The upside: Getting rid of all that foodie flotsom made more space for the Frontier spice blends that have been my default for evening meals when I need a flavor boost but can’t face the old grind with the pestle and mortar. Which I do have. Huge ruddy great thing made by Wedgwood for pharamacists use in the days when they called themselves apothecaries. All very handmade, but really. Life is too short to grind fenugreek seeds.

So,  these blends are all you could hope for: ORGANIC ! Fresh, authentic — I’ve been futzing with blends for curry and tagine and harissa for long enough to know when something is not quite the thing. Frontier has it down (although their coriander dressing/marinade never quite lost its dried powdered lawn-clippings taste). Probably the key to their success is the lack of adulteration. But the spice mixes. Oh yes. Especially the Mexican mole mix. Norma Garza, my opera-singing BFF who knows about such things (La Paloma in Austin had the best mole last time I consulted Norma), would be, I think, impressed with my culinary acumen to have prepped such a succulent sauce.

Hey, cheating is okay if the ingredients you are playing with are the real deal.  At this stage of the game I abide by having someone else do the pulverizing for me. Thank you. Frontier! Can’t wait to try the turkey brine blend: I’ll bring the bird.

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June 8th, 2012
Monet’s Garden Lessons
Claude Monet. Artist's Garden.

Claude Monet. Artist's Garden.

The current floral extravaganza at the New York Botanic Garden is devoted to a celebration of Claude Monet’s famous garden at Giverny, just north of Paris. I was fortunate to be there at the opening event as a guest of the photographer and author, Elizabeth Murray, who spent her formative gardening years assisting in the restoration of this garden. With her subsequent books, lectures and photography, Elizabeth has established her credentials as one of the leading authorities on the hows and whys of Monet’s horticultural “painting.” For that is what his garden-making was all about; painting beautiful landscapes with flowers and so creating a world in which, with his eyesight failing, he could continue to find the inspiration to render a three-dimensional world in two. Monet on the footbridge crossing the lily pond.

And what a world it was. Anyone who has created a garden knows how intimately we connect with each plant and benefit from the diversity they create for us to enjoy. Even a handful of soil, rich and loamy from years of feeding and mulching and working speaks to our hearts.

The exhibition begins properly in the NYBG library building where two Monet paintings face each other across the room, framing the centerpiece display of his wooden paint palette. Blobs of color intact — smears of rose madder, iris mauve, watery yellow and delphinium blue — speckle the old, gently curved board. Behind, from an enlarged photo the old artist peers back at us through bottle bottom glasses. I could imagine his hand on the palette, his thumb poking through the grip. What I can’t imagine is being an artist slowly losing my eyesight. Yet, Monet serves as an example of how such adversity can be turned to advantage, and his last works, monumental collages of vividly colored shapes, show that even in the dimming light of his world he could express an inner vision of beauty.

I’ve been to Giverny several times, but thanks to this wonderful exhibition, I have seen it for the first time. It runs until 21 October and the garden display in the Enid Haupt Conservatory will change with the seasons.Claude Monet (1840-1926) in front of his paintings 'The Waterlilies', in his studio at Giverny, 1920 (gelatin silver print) (b/w photo) by Henri Manuel (1874-1947) Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris, France/ Giraudon/ The Bridgeman Art Library

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April 9th, 2012
5 More reasons to demand organic

New York Times columnist, Nicolas Kristof, wrote on 5 April about the use of antibiotics to “treat” livestock destined for our tables. He made the very good point that once you know just what big ag is doing to your food, you have every reason you need to demand organic. Interviewing a research scientist from the Johns Hopkins Center for Sustainable Living, Kristof learned that “poultry on factory farms are routinely fed caffeine, active ingredients of Tylenol and Benadryl, banned antibiotics and even arsenic.”
And while the researcher makes the point that they hadn’t found anything that was an “immediate health concern,” I had to say to myself, “yet”.

As I mentioned in an earlier  blog, I met Dr Robert Lawrence, the founder of the Sustainable Living Center, and heard what he had to say, in particular about the use of antibiotics. His points were:
1. The quality of the food we consume has a direct bearing on our wellbeing: 2/3 of the children in Pakistan, for example, suffer from nutritional stunting that effects them physically and mentally.
2. We self-medicate with food every day: Only clean food can feed your immune system.
3. It should be our urgent goal to eliminate all antibiotics from food production, or restrict their use to only for sick animals under veterinary care, not as a prophylactic shotgun administered by the farmer.
4. Alert the Moms of the world to the health threat posed by the indiscriminate use of antibiotics:Eat much less meat, but make it clean meat.
5. Engage food industrialists and then give them a pathway to make them part of the change. Encourage them to reinvent the meat industry.
At the moment this could be the biggest challenge as, simply put, they don’t appreciate that there is a problem and that their methods are part of it.

Vote with your dollars: I’d rather pay a bit more to the farmer for clean food, than to the doctor for medical care when standard treatments for infection no longer work because the strongest most resistant immune system isn’t my own.

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April 8th, 2012
Movin’ In?

Yesterday, Him Indoors and I spent the entire day in the basement unpacking boxes that haven’t been opened since we left Austin nearly ten years ago. Such memories…such a LOT OF STUFF! Including a garden trowel that came with me from England, a parting gift from the Sainted and Holy, Beloved of Memory, Ray Rix. He was the strong back to my wispy vision of a garden. Without him — it wouldn’t have happened. Full Stop.
Ray was Norfolk yeoman stock. He’d only been out of the county once, when he got on the train in Norwich, disembarked at Liverpool Street in the City of London, took a quick look around, and jumped back on the train. That was in World War Two.
Of course, Ray having never strayed from his birthplace, had a broad Norfolk accent, a soft grrr to words with an r…garrrrd’n. I had my Midwest twang intact. Sometimes we barely understood each other. It made for some interesting times — all good.
Today, as I charge out into my garden, hand-trowel in hand, I’ll be thinking of my old chum. Fossicking around in the border, laying out the soaker hose, snickering at the raised beds I made in the veg garden “Her look like graves,” Ray opined. Thanks, buddy.
And, heaven help me, I’ll be planting asparagus. Again. The third lot I’ve toiled over. Ray imparted a piece of old Norfolk wisdom the first time: “Plant ’spargus and y’rrrr shurrre t’ move.” He was right!
Mayhap we should’na unpacked those tharrrr boxes.  Grrrrr.

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