Archive for July, 2007

The DIY Garden Arch; Easy, Organic and (almost) Free

The twig and branch arch that divides the main upper garden from the white/herb garden near the house looks almost as though it grew there naturally, and every time there’s a garden tour it gets more comment from visitors than most of the plants. For years I have been promising to explain how Bill builds them, so here finally is the how-to.

our new arch, right after completion

You will notice I called the arch “them” even though there is only one. That’s because structures like these biodegrade pretty quickly. The corner posts are durable – ours have been in place for 15 years and show no signs of declining – but the lacy branch work that makes the arch lasts only about 5 years, at least here in the Northeast where it’s exposed to pretty fierce weather.

This is a good thing. Whether you let it go as long as possible or decide to take it down earlier, everything will return to the earth without leaving paint residues, major quantities of rusting metal or other unpleasantness. There is no debris to dispose of except a little bit of wire and a few screws.

When I had Bill proofread these instructions to be sure I hadn’t missed anything, he said “This sounds complicated! If I had to read all this I’d never build anything.” It sounds more complicated than it is, but if you are as handy as Bill ( and as disinclined to read directions before plunging into projects), all you have to do is scroll through the pictures and you will know all you need to.

For those who would prefer a bit more guidance, I’ve written it up like a recipe. But please think of it as a recipe for stew, not a recipe for cake; it’s just a way to get you started. Bill can build an arch from posts to completion in an afternoon. You might want to spread it out, scouting for saplings and setting the posts on day one, building the arch on day two. Just don’t cut the saplings until you’re ready to use them; they stiffen up quickly and you want them to be as flexible as possible.

Materials (For an arch 6 feet wide, 20 inches deep and 9 or 10 feet tall) :

4 4-inch diameter 8-foot length cedar or locust posts, available at lumber yards

4 12-14 foot willow, oak or maple saplings, roughly 1.5 inches in diameter at the base. The ones that grow deep in the woods are more likely to be tall and straight because they’re reaching for the light. Make sure the main trunk is flexible from about 5 feet on up; sometimes skinny trees are older and stiffer than they look.

2 straight(ish) branches roughly 6.5 feet long and a generous inch in diameter .

12 to 15 straight(ish) branch pieces, each about ¾ inch in diameter and 19 inches long. This sounds like a lot, but most if not all of them can be gleaned from sapling branches you will be removing. It’s ok if 5 of them are only about ½ inch thick.

An assortment of different length screws: 1 to 2.5 inches long ( You won’t know exactly what sizes you need until you have the saplings and branches).

A roll of the thickest wire you can easily use as though it were string: 14 to 16 gauge probably.


Shovel and trowel ( a post hole digger is better, should you happen to have one lying around. These instructions assume you don’t)

a pruning saw

Pair of pruners

Cordless drill

Wire cutter ( some pruners have one built in)

A ladder


1. Set the posts in pairs, 18 inches from center to center, the pairs 6 feet apart on centers. Bases should be buried 14 to 16 inches deep. If the soil is loose you can dig narrow holes using nothing but the trowel. If it isn’t, you’ll have to go at least partway down with the shovel, then backfill.

2. Cut the saplings. If you can’t get the 6 foot pieces from their side branches, cut lower branches from other trees. ( they don’t have to be the same kind of tree).

3. Bring the harvest to a spot where there is plenty of room to work, i.e. the lawn. Remove all branches from the bottom 6 feet of the saplings, so you have very skinny poles with very branchy tops. Bill just leaves the leaves in place; they fall off after a few weeks. You can remove them if you are a neat freak but then I take it back about one afternoon.

4. Prune side branches and twigs from the prunings to get the short pieces.

5. You are now going to tie the posts together with short pieces and build a ladder across the top of the arch to stabilize it. Use the hunkiest short pieces near the bottoms of the posts, the thinnest ones across the top. Let everything overlap a little. (Screws should be at least ¾ inch in from the ends or they’re likely to split the wood. And you need overlap to make tying things together easy.)

Bill trying out a cross piece

Okay. Attach the short pieces to the posts at regular intervals, screwing them to the inside faces. Attach the 6 foot pieces to the insides of the posts, around 2 inches down from the tops. Get up on the ladder and lash the cross-pieces to the tops of the 6-footers. ( You would think this would be easier to do on the ground, but everything is so irregular it doesn’t work out that way.)

6. Set the sapling bases against the outsides of the posts, starting about a foot off the ground, butting them up to the cross-pieces. Screw them into place.


7. Now comes the interesting part. Get up on the ladder and bend the saplings down to form the arch. They can go in parallel or be crossed kitty-corner, whichever is easiest and most attractive. Tie them to the tops of the posts, weaving the wire in and out around the cross piece ends to keep everything secure.


8. The arch is still having a bad hair day. Weave the branches in and out around each other until the shape is under control.


There; that’s it. Plant some vines. Clematis, perennial sweet peas and annuals like cup and saucer vine and Spanish flag work well, or you can plant climbing roses and pray they make their own woody frame before the arch gives out.

The previous arch, covered with Clematis virginiana and doing fine until this year’s Patriots Day Storm.

Organic Tomatoes Triumphant

It’s nice to learn that a respectable, long-term study has confirmed that organic tomatoes contain far more beneficial flavonoids than the conventional kind, but this news won’t be much of a surprise to people who value true organic produce* for its (frequently) superior flavor. Other things like variety, climate and distance-from-farm being equal, good taste and high nutrient content are both results of a growing method that works in partnership with plants instead of treating them like machines for turning synthetic fertilizers into edible widgets.

Tomato plants grown the conventional way get frequent doses of those fertilizers and of powerful pesticides that provide blanket protection. Organic feeding is slower and steadier; and the permitted pesticides are usually less speedy and less lingering. That means organically grown plants must be able to stand up for themselves, and one of the ways they do it is with the antioxidants that look so promising for fighting human disease. Plants that have all their needs met in advance produce far less of these compounds.

And plants have evolved to use solar power. Sun on leaves is what makes flavor, especially when there is a high ratio of leaves to fruit. Heavy jolts of fertilizer can goose the plants into making more fruit, but fertilizer can’t make more sunshine. Result according to people with taste buds: pallid flavor. Result according to the scientists: “nutrient dilution.”

Meanwhile, back in the garden:

* be sure your tomato plants are getting enough water and getting it consistently. The stress of alternating drought and deluge prevents plants from taking up calcium; calcium deficiency leads to blossom end rot.

* if you have an eye on the county fair, consider sacrificing part of the crop. Remove all but one baby tomato from each truss of fruit and the survivor will grow far larger than it would have otherwise. ( Same goes for your dahlias, by the way. )

* if you are growing beefsteak type heirloom tomatoes like Brandywine and Georgia Streak, it’s best to harvest them before they’re completely ripe. I’m not talking about green ( at least not until frost) but just barely on the pale side of fully colored – 2 or 3 days in front of vine ripe. Picking before the fruit is ripe may seem counter to the whole point of growing your own, but unlike strawberries tomatoes do continue to improve after they leave the vine. Taking them indoors while they’re still slightly firm lessens the chances they’ll crack from a late rain or, as far as I can tell, just natural cussedness.

This is sort of cheating because it was taken in late fall and some of these were rather green when they left the vine. Note that they are in single layers, which helps prevent rot – among other things because we can’t help keeping an eye on them. Anything nasty gets removed promptly, before problems can spread. Flavonoid content of tomatoes like these has not been studied, as far as I know. But I do know that only the red ones contain significant amounts of lycopene (another, quite different, antioxidant that’s also much in the news) and that if you want to load up it’s best to cook and concentrate ‘em. Cup for cup, old fashioned Jersey-Italian tomato sauce will deliver a lot more lycopene than Southwestern salsa.

* I say “true organic” because sustainability matters. Spinach grown without conventional pesticides is a better choice than spinach grown with them (especially if you’re feeding children) . But if the organic spinach was grown on a monocropped 1000 acre field; tended and harvested by underpaid itinerant workers and then shipped clear across the country in something that burns petroleum, it still has a way to go before it’s organic by me, and it may also fall short in the flavor department.

Genuine Biscuits-Of-Course Old Fashioned Strawberry Shortcake

We New Englanders always have a good time excoriating the so-called shortcake that has been made with sponge cake, but not all of us go as far as John Thorne, who is on record as saying “unpleasant stuff, spongecake. It tastes like its namesake without the redeeming scrubbing power.” I consider this unfair to Génoise, which when well made is delicious and very good with strawberries.

But sponge cake + strawberries doesn’t = shortcake, supposedly named for the way solid fat (shortening) keeps dough tender and flaky. Spongecake also fails to be shortcake because it’s too sweet. Strawberry shortcake does not come at the end of the meal; it IS the meal. Or at least it was in the days when the big dinner was at midday and all you wanted in the evening was something light and pleasant * . Being a full summer supper, shortcake should get its sweetness mostly from the fruit, with the “cake” part right next door to bread and crisp enough around the edges to provide textural contrast to the pudding-soft center.

It should also be served with a pitcher of unsweetened heavy cream, but so many do like to have the cream whipped I guess all I can say is please go easy on the sugar, and don’t add vanilla unless the strawberries really need a lot of help — in which case it would be better to add the vanilla directly to the sweetened strawberries along with a good slug of triple sec and a squeeze of lemon. Pour the result over vanilla ice cream and call it a day.

Strawberry Shortcake

If you haven’t already, please read Setting Up for Strawberry Shortcake. It discusses most of the fine points but fails to mention that shortcake has about the same shelf life as a soufflé and should be served as soon as the biscuits come out of the oven. It’ll still be delicious if you prep the components before dinner and assemble the shortcake after, but if you want to roll around on the floor in ecstasy you have to eat it before the biscuits cool.

Serves 6 for dessert, 3 for supper

2 quarts fully ripe, juicy strawberries

¼ cup sugar, or a bit more

2 c. all purpose flour unless you have some cake flour handy in which case use 1 1/2c. all-purpose and 1/2 cup plus 1 tbl. ( I know, I know) cake.

2 tbl. sugar

1 tbl. baking powder

1 tsp salt

6 tbl. ( 3 oz) frozen butter

¼ c yogurt in a 2 cup measuring cup, which then fill with milk to the 1 ¼ cup line. If you don’t have any yogurt, use 1 cup milk

additional butter for assemblage is traditional but optional

heavy cream to accompany

1. Put a rack in the middle of the oven and heat same to 425 degrees. Put a wide, shallow mixing bowl into the refrigerator to chill. Cut half of the strawberries into small chunks and mix them with the ¼ c. sugar in a non-reactive bowl. Mash to release juice. Slice remaining berries into the bowl, cutting them about ¼ inch thick. Stir well and set aside in a cool but not refrigerated place.

2. Put the flour in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade; add the other dry ingredients and pulse briefly to mix. Cut the butter into 10 pieces and add 4 of them. Pulse until the butter disappears. Add the rest of the butter and pulse only until pieces are the size of peas.

3. Turn the mixture into the cold bowl and add the liquid all at once. Stir only until combined, then flour your hand and knead 6 or 8 times, until the dough is almost but not completely smooth.

4. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and pat it out a bit more than ½ inch thick. Pat it gently into a shape that will allow you to cut 6 roughly 3” biscuits. Using a biscuit cutter, stamp them out and transfer to an ungreased baking sheet, keeping them at least 2 inches apart. There will be very little left over dough and re-rolled scraps are never as good, so just gather the odd bits and gently press them into biscuit sized collections. They’ll come together as they bake.

5. Bake until risen and richly browned on top, about 15 minutes depending on your oven. While biscuits are baking, taste the strawberries. They should be as sweet as you’d want them if you were eating a bowl of strawberries and cream; add more sugar if they need it.

6. When biscuits are done, put them on dessert plates or in shallow soup bowls. Split with a fork and butter the bottom halves lightly if feeling traditional. Using about 2/3 of the strawberries, ladle them over the biscuit bottoms and gently press on the tops. For maximum deliciousness, top with remaining strawberries. For prettier presentation, put the remaining fruit in a bowl and pass it at the table with the jug of heavy cream.

Other shortcakes: Well of course, as long as the fruit is soft, sweet and juicy it’s hard to miss. Raspberries and peaches are wonderful. Blueberries can be very good if they’re the semi-tart wild kind, but they don’t yield when crushed. Cook half of them with the sugar until they’re juicy, then let cool before combining with the rest. I’ve never made mango, but it would probably be delicious if you could get good mangoes. A mighty big if, but maybe somebody in India wants to try fusion food.

* More about the history of shortcake for supper next post. This one is long enough as it is.