Archive for August, 2007

Unstained Melody (for those who love lilies)

We are in the glory season for Oriental lilies, great big killer-fragrant beauties that are among the brightest stars of the late summer garden.


And as most veteran lily growers know, that means we’re also in the season of nearly indelible bright gold pollen stains on anything and anyone who happens to brush those loaded anthers.

Florists deal with this problem by removing the offending dye-stuff, which not only makes the flowers stain-free but also ( according to some) enables them to last longer. Gently grasp each dangling anther with the blades of a small pruner and pull, don’t snip. The docked filament will spring back gracefully and come to a point instead of looking pruned.

Not surprisingly, castration makes the blooms look sterile and somewhat fake; not plastic, exactly, but incomplete. The best solution is to have a lot of lilies ( fighting the beetles as described here and doctor only those blossoms that face traffic.


That way, your lilies won’t gild anybody…

And vice versa, I hope. “Gild the lily” may be considered a standard idiom, but I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it. Among other things, Shakespeare’s original “paint the lily “ ( King John; I had to look it up) actually makes sense:

Therefore, to be possess’d with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER, a modest proposal

There’s a big turf war going on in New York City: Natural versus Artificial. You can read all about it in the New York Times, but the short version is that playing fields made of genuine grass cannot be played upon constantly and that means there aren’t enough of them to go around. How much this is due to population pressures and how much to the fact that ‘“New Yorkers expect to play where they want, when they want,” ’ as the Parks and Recreation Commissioner put it, is not revealed in the story.

But the commissioner, Adrian Benepe, sees it as part of his mission to fight childhood obesity, and making sure children can run around as much as possible is a very good way to do it. That being the case, there is much to be said for the artificial stuff: you can put it on places like asphalt-covered lots where grass would never grow; it’s in place year round yet costs less to maintain. And as the commisioner did not say, you can install it without running afoul of the junk food lobby.

The natural camp argues that urban children need more contact with nature, not less. And they add that while playing is certainly healthy the artificial turf is not. It’s rife with personal and environmental hazards from excess heat absorption to carcinogenic chemicals.

The real deal. Those ragged pale tips, to my shame, reveal that our mower blade needs sharpening.

My sympathies lie – naturally – with the natural grass camp, but I wish this were not being cast as an either-or choice. The city has more empty asphalt than one might think, especially in the outer boroughs. So why can’t the places that can support grass be encouraged to do just that while places that can’t grow grass anyway are covered with the artificial turf ?

But lets not keep calling it “artificial turf” or even worse, just “turf,” as the article does repeatedly. And let’s stop dyeing it grass green as though it were some kind of equivalent. It isn’t. It’s Plastic Play Surface, and if a concerted effort were made to create some that was more benign, it would be a win-win for everyone. New York is not the only city that’s short of playing fields.

Why couldn’t the stuff be made from old soda bottles, say, and tinted against glare in a very pale blue, pink or yellow? It wouldn’t match grass as a natural air conditioner, but the lighter color would make fewer heat problems. And the fact that it was absolutely not green would be a reminder that it was, however useful, absolutely not grass.

( Please don’t remind me a pale rug would show the dirt. Maybe showing that dirt deposited on plastic cannot return to the earth would be a good idea.)

Home Grown: Sugar Snap Peas

It’s been a mighty long wait, but at last we’re rolling in Sugar Snaps, grabbing handfuls when we pass the basket on the kitchen table, slicing them superfine to make snap slaw, stir-frying them with summer mushrooms, dipping them in everything from guacamole to tunafish salad.

Sugarsnaps take longer than other peas, about 75 days, and they make enormous vines that need serious trellises. But once they get going they bear for well over a month, offering pounds and pounds of easily picked, crisp, juicy, sweet intensely pea-flavored pods that are as the saying goes “ not sold in stores.”

Sugar Snaps climb 8 feet and more if given support – which we provided until I got sick of dragging a stepladder into the garden. Now they’re supported to 6 feet and then let flop back into picking range. The pole on the left is wound with an 8-footer, the brown spot about ¼ of the way up is a patch of dry grass. You may notice many weeds in this picture. We will discuss that some other time.

A wimpy imitation of Sugar Snaps, grown mostly in Mexico and Guatemala, is now available at upscale greengrocers’ for a good part of the year. And in late spring many farmers markets offer decent snap peas. But almost none of them are realio-trulio Sugar Snaps: adequate-but-unwonderful bush snap peas make a lot more sense for commercial growers.*

Home gardeners prefer bush snaps too, if the catalogs are any indication. Although we have not grown Sugar Pop, Sugar Rae or Sugar Gem, we have tried Sugar Ann, Sugar Daddy, Sugar Bon, and Sugar Mel. None, unfortunately, are anywhere near as tasty as the original and that goes also for Super Sugar Snap, a vine almost as large as Sugar Snap but supposedly earlier, heavier-yielding and more resistant to pea afflictions, especially powdery mildew.

It isn’t. Or at least it wasn’t for us. In fact, the only snap pea that comes close is Amish Snap, an heirloom variety sold by Seed Savers Exchange. It’s a little shorter than Sugar Snap and doesn’t bear for quite as long, but it is substantially earlier, and the peas inside the pale green pods are uniquely sweet and full-flavored.

Setup for an informal taste-test ( pod ends are broken off because you can pick and string them in the same motion if you leave the stem end behind). Amish Snap is the one on the left.

Many food writers think snap peas are a recent development. Not so. A curved snap pea called sickle pea shows up in garden literature in the late 17th century. It faded from view in the mid 1800’s, replaced by straighter podded varieties known as butter peas and butter sugar peas. Butter peas were still around as recently as the 1950’s, when you could get the seed at Agway. But then somehow they became so rare that when Dr. Calvin Lamborn’s Sugar Snap was released in 1979, everyone thought it was a brand new vegetable.

Many sources explain that snap peas differ from flat-podded snow peas because the snap pea pod wall is much thicker. True, but far more to the point – at least the point of tastiness – is that snap peas taste best when the peas inside are full size. Snow peas must be eaten while still almost flat; the peas in those pods taste dreadful.

This is Carouby de Maussane, the only snow pea I know that still tastes good after the peas start to swell. The vines are even taller than Sugar Snaps and they bear vast quantities of enormous pods; the ones in this picture are babies. They also have exquisite edible flowers:


So why the seed is getting hard to find is a mystery. Last time I looked, Pinetree Garden Seeds was still selling Caroubys, but I’m thinkin’ next year we’d better start saving our own.