Archive for October, 2006

Brugmansia Bouquets

We don’t do it during the season; always too many buds coming and the urge to see ” how big can it get THIS year?”

But when the plants have to be cut back for winter…

This vaseful sat by the door in Cushing for over 2 weeks, constantly opening new flowers, perfuming the entryway, and giving me a chance to use one of the large vases made years and years ago by our friend Paul Heroux. ( He was getting rid of old work that no longer pleased him; I rescued it from certain death on the shard pile and have been enjoying it ever since). To see what he’s been up to lately, check out the show at Howard Yezerski Gallery, in Boston, from November 17th to December 23rd.

three warnings about brugmansia bouquets:

* Fragrance can be overpowering if the vase is in a small room.

* Cut branches are almost as willing as willows to root while they’re on display, so by the time the flowers are finished, you can have a whole herd of incipient plants. Good (ish) in spring. Not Good in fall; be strong and throw them away.

* Brugmansias are poisonous, even in quite small amounts. If your cat treats the bouquet as salad, adios Puffkins. One of the reasons we favor the porch is Mr. Earl, who was more or less normal as a kitten

but has grown up to be a vegetable hound.

Bringing in the Sheaves

Well, bringing in, anyway.

The brugmansia got cut back to the biggest stems, dug up   –   with attendant root pruning,   as you can imagine –   and replanted ( unceremoniously stuffed, actually) in a contractor-weight   garbage bag. Bill then bumped it downstairs into the   cellar, where it will remain until next spring.

The squash went into the living room while we try to find a storage spot that will stay between 50 and 60 degrees; winter squash rot if they get chilled. My food historian friend Sandy Oliver, editor of Food History News,   whose lifestyle would not be alien to many of her subjects, recommends keeping them under the bed.

This isn’t just about preservation; most hard-shelled squash* are unready at harvest. They need about 6 weeks of aging to develop their smoothest texture and maximum sweetness.

* Everything except acorn, really: butternut, buttercup, Hubbard, you name it and especially Japanese “sweet potato” types like the knobby dark green Black Futsu in the wheelbarrow. It will turn a golden tan before it comes into its glory…

Even if you didn’t grow any winter squash, this is handy to remember, because the great array of nifty, offbeat squash at the farmers’ market will only be there until Thanksgiving.   If you want to enjoy a wider, more delicious (and far more beautiful) assortment than the paltry selection at supermarkets, stock up now while the stocking’s good…

Garden Cleanup

The frost is STILL not quite on the pumpkin – our few light dips below freezing have not even killed the summer squash, I’m sorry to say.

But almost.

So here are a few Garden Cleanup Tips:

* Before you start removing the evidence, make a rough map/ post mortem report that can be used for planning next year. Include relevant outside factors like deer predation – which you’d THINK you’d remember but if you’re like me you tend to have denial problems about the smaller, less painful losses.
It’s also helpful to note things like the amount of rain: lousy tomato taste, for example, may be blamed on too much water and the too little sun that implies. But that same rain is probably why the hollyhocks hit 10 feet.

* when removing sick plants, don’t forget to rake up underneath, especially around roses and peonies; diseased leaves are a prime place for badness to winter over. Put all possibly-infected ( or infested!) material deep in the woods or on the bonfire.

* Healthy garbage can go on the compost, along with the lawnmower-chopped leaves, but it’s even better to let it rot in place (lettuce, nasturtiums) or, if it has stiff stems, catch snow and protect crowns (echinacea, delphinium, most perennials).

* Better-to-leave-it notwithstanding, the combo of aesthetics and prep-for-next year does demand removal of spent annuals like basil and marigolds. If you can bear to take the extra time, it pays to cut them down, rather than yank them up; leaving roots in place helps preserve soil structure and minimize weeds.

Spinach Saga, Part 2

Well, one good thing to be said for procrastination – at least when it comes to making the case for More Local Food – is that if you just wait a little while, the inimitable Michael Pollan will do all the research and then say, far better than you could, more or less what you planned to say when you got around to it. Pretty much everything (except growing instructions) is right there in The Vegetable Industrial Complex, in the 10/15/06 NYTimes magazine.

Seeing Stars

If you don’t count chives, the first allium flower I planted was a leek that didn’t get harvested. Next spring there was a flower spike and not long after that, in early summer, a great big ball of little white stars that lasted about 2 weeks.
After that, the deluge. Every year there are more of the genuinely ornamental kind (the kind in the back of the bulb catalogs, after you go past the tulips and daffodils and crocuses and lilies and just about everything else), because even though they come back reliably it’s very hard to stop buying.

Favorites include:

* the fireworks special A. schubertii (not the composer. A 19th century naturalist/plant collector named Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert). It has pink stars that shoot out on long stems from a tight ball of other pink stars; a truly amazing effect.

* The graceful yellow A. flavum, which blooms in midsummer and is always in peril of being weeded out…until the flower stalk comes up it looks an awful lot like tall onion grass.

* A. bulgaricum, now Nectaroscordum bulgaricum. It has pink and green striped white bells instead of the more usual allium stars.

Allium christophii, the Star of Persia, is almost as lovely in the dried state as when fresh (and pale purple). This stem is about 3 years old and has been being used as outhouse daécor. I just stuck it in the pachysandra next to the barn in order to take the mugshot.

Christophii is an exception; most alliums don’t have common names. What they do have is one big flaw: leaves start turning yellow and dying just as the flowers bloom. Bulgaricum sometimes stays green throughout , but you can’t count on it. And most of the others are worse.

Solution? Plant alliums where the the leaves will be hidden by more obliging plants – even pachysandra will do. Just keep them out of the front of the border unless you want to see the gorgeous blossoms rising from decidedly unpoetic ruins.

Falling for Spring Bulbs

What’s Wrong With This Arrangement?

Answer of course is that it makes no seasonal sense: Blewits are fall mushrooms;   Sweet peas are spring flowers.

Nevertheless, 2 weeks ago they intersected, thanks to an unusually damp summer where all the big heat came early. Now that we’re losing the light,   the sweet peas have about conked out; there are more and more blewits; maples and poplars are turning fast. Must be time to order bulbs.

Actually, the time to order bulbs was months ago – but It Is Not Too Late. Tempting rarities like the lavender and deep purple C. tommasianus ‘Pictus’ (introduced in 1914) one of many treats from Old House Gardens   tend to be sold out, but given how much they cost ( 3 for $11.25) this may not be a bad thing.
The pale lavender C. tommasianus ‘Lilac Beauty’ and gold-throated purple ‘Tricolor,’ ( a C. sieberi ) from Van Engelen   scarcely compare in the beauty department and give nothing   in heirloom bragging rights, but at 100 for $ 10.25 they do make a crocus lawn   affordable enough to leave a bit of bulb money for yet more alliums, beauties of which one cannot have too many.