Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Algerian Iris

The tradition of making lists of plants blooming on Christmas or New Year’s Day is one which has never really caught on in our climate. Winters here have generally been too severe to make it worthwhile. Yet recent winters have more people giving the garden a careful look during the holiday season.

This year the garden has given me an utterly unexpected gift: late this morning I noticed a newly opened flower of Iris unguicularis, the Algerian iris. This particular plant has been blooming since sometime in November. It was obtained in the summer of 2005, planted against the house wall with a SW exposure in the rain shadow of the eaves – and then forgotten. It first bloomed in late November of 2006: that first flower (shown above) was improbably big for something blooming outside at that time of year.

This area is not Algerian iris country. English writers from Gertrude Jekyll a century ago to those of the present have celebrated this beautiful plant, and many American gardeners have tried to grow it. I certainly did several decades ago; but that trial, although it resulted in healthy, robust plants, produced not one mature bloom. There were buds, but never a flower. The buds always froze before they opened. I eventually gave up on the plant.

Then another local gardener had a repeat of my luck: he tried the plant and it never bloomed for him. He dug the plant, divided it up, and offered the pieces at a meeting of our local rock garden group. I was not the only person to take a piece, but as far as I’m aware I’m the only one who has reported success with it. The very mild weather has a lot, maybe everything, to do with it.

Now that I’ve seen what this plant can do, I might make room for it in the protected cold frame. That way, if typical winters return, I’ll still have these amazing blooms to brighten the shortest days of the year.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A small pond in late autumn

I think I enjoy the pond more at this time of year than any other. By now I’ve gotten used to the lack of lively vegetation and flower interest in the garden. The pond has been tidied up a bit, rank growth trimmed back and the various stuff floating on the water surface either removed or much reduced. With the surface clear, the pond now reflects the sky much better. The water in the pond is a warm brown now; it reminds me of tea. This is the perfect background for goldfish, and this time of year is the peak goldfish viewing season. The fish here are so-called feeder fish, fish sold to be fed alive to other animals. They cost about 12 cents each, and every so often I release a few dozen into the pond. Birds (kingfishers and herons are often seen in the neighborhood, but I’ve never seen either at the pond although on two occasions I did see herons in the garden), cats and raccoons take some, maybe most, of them, and eventually they disappear. Then I add more.
The fish are still active, and the ever changing patterns they produce in the pond are an invitation to relax. On a day with sunshine, no wind and air temperatures above freezing, the benches on either end of the pond are very inviting, and it’s surprising how quickly the time passes when you’re absentmindedly watching the schools of goldfish.

A holiday present for the birds

We enjoy lots of light in our small house due to several sets of sliding glass doors. One set of these doors is placed exactly opposite to a large window on the opposite side of the house. You can see right through the house due to the placement of these windows. When the crepe myrtle is in full bloom, the red glow suffuses several rooms. Visitors walk into the front door and get a sliver of a view of the back garden and the light pouring in from that side of the house. Unfortunately, birds also seem to think they can fly right through the house. I’ve often wondered how birds aim themselves when flying. Evidently many simply fly into the light, and thus the great danger to them of a pane of glass between them and a light source.
It’s not unusual to be sitting and reading and to hear the unnerving thump of something hitting the glass door on the back side of the house. I can remember only one occasion when a bird hit the glass and died on the spot. By the time you get to the glass to investigate the thump the bird is gone.
The bird might be gone, but to judge by what they leave behind it’s hard to believe that they are not injured. In the right light one can make out the oily impression of wings and bodies on the glass. Sometimes there are feathers at the scene. Two days ago I was sitting near the glass when a thump much louder than usual interrupted my reading. I looked up to see a big bird making a bee line for the woods. I’m not sure what kind of bird it was – I saw black and white, maybe it was a woodpecker. When I examined the glass I was heart-struck: there was blood on the glass. To be injured is bad enough, but to be injured going into the winter strikes me as a death sentence.
I went out and bought and today hung a 7’ x 20’ piece of a product called Bird-X along the eve of the house. It hangs about two feet from the house wall, so any bird hitting it will almost certainly not crash hard into the glass. Bird-X is made to protect fruit and vegetables from bird damage: this installation will protect the birds from themselves.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Vita Sackville-West Rediviva

More YouTube adventures: last night I stumbled on another incredible voice from the past. This time it isn’t an opera singer, but the voice of someone whose name every gardener knows: Vita Sackville-West. She is reading from her poem The Land.
Here’s a link to the recording:


What does the gardener do during the winter?

What does the gardener do during the winter? Even as recently as five years ago, the answer would have been very different for most of us. Now, it's easy to kill hours with email,
Wikipedia, Google, blogging, web site design and You Tube. I spend a lot of time checking out You Tube music videos. Amazing things turn up now and then. For instance, a few months ago I stumbled on a audio/film fragment which had me high as a kite for days: in this brief segment one hears and sees Luisa Tetrazzini singing along with a Caruso recording. Tetrazzini made plenty of acoustic recordings early in the twentieth century, mostly before the First World War. But I was not aware of any electric recordings. When listening to the old acoustic recordings, the question which immediately arises is "what did they really sound like?" Tetrazzini was one of the great vocal miracles of her time, maybe of all time. Who wouldn't want to hear that voice as it really sounded? So this brief fragment is precious. It catches Tetrazzini late in her life, at her "retirement" after a career which was fabulous and flamboyant but ultimately left her a ward of the state.
Years ago in the liner notes to a set of reissues of Tetrazzini's recordings I read the story about some fans who visited her in old age. Curious about the state of her once famous voice, they discovered that it took little prompting to get the once famous singer to go to the piano and sing a scale topped with a rousing high C. Tetrazzini is then reported to have triumphantly proclaimed: "I'm old, I'm fat, I'm ugly, but I'm still La Tetrazzini".
The film clip opens with Tetrazzini, obviously fat, probably old but hardly ugly, listening to a Caruso recording. The first time I heard this I experienced incredibly acute anticipation: Tetrazzini does not sing at first, and you can see her making the sort of movements which singers do before singing. And then suddenly that voice...she still had it in abundance.
Here's the link to the Tetrazzini film clip:


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Real biscuits

To the extent that frequency of consumption is a criterion, biscuits must be my favorite food. There can not have been many weeks in the last forty years of my life when I have not made biscuits at least once. Although it takes only a few minutes to make them, and you can attend to other morning things while they are cooking, they really are not suitable to work mornings. A good biscuit deserves generous treatment, both in the matter of accompanying spreads and in the time allotted to their enjoyment.
As it turns out, there are several schools of biscuit making. The prevailing school demands soft flour, minimal handling of the dough, buttermilk and baking soda. I’m not an adherent of that school. My biscuits are made with butter, milk, aluminum-free baking powder and unbleached, all purpose flour (a flavorful flour can make a world of difference). They get a lot of handling: they are, in effect, a variation of what is sometimes called rough puff pastry. The dough is kneaded until it is very tight. If I’m preparing them for company, during the last few minutes of kneading the dough is not folded: the rolled dough is cut in half, the resulting halves are neatly stacked, and then the rolling and stacking is continued until I’m satisfied. If I’m making them for myself, I sometimes omit the stacking step. The biscuits in the image were not stacked. In either case, for the final rolling the pastry board is sprinkled with white corn meal. This seemingly minor detail adds an unexpected and delicious element to the finished biscuit. After this final rolling, the block of dough is cut with a knife into squares or rectangles.
The biscuits are then arranged on a baking sheet sprinkled with more white corn meal and cooked in a hot oven (in fact, typically in the gas grill outside at maximum heat) until they begin to smell delicious. Typical recipes call for ten or so minutes: that’s fine if you like raw dough. I’ve been known to cook them until the edges begin to show minute black flecks.
The biscuits in the image show a frequent variation: they were topped with grated cheddar cheese before being baked.
A plate of these biscuits makes a wonderful way to fuel up before a busy day of garden work.

The Tweed Months

It’s not just the shift from daylight savings time which distracts me at this time of year. There is something else going on, something a lot more subtle. Each year at this time my aesthetic sensibilities undergo a change. Sometime in November, when the oaks begin to color, the autumnal perspective begins to prevail: I think of this time of year as the Tweed months. The broad spectrum and varied intensities of summer color and early fall leaf color are replaced by a palate which is much narrower in scope and generally much more subdued in intensity. Summer is an ever changing piano, early fall a harpsichord, and these weeks before the arrival of really brutal weather a clavichord. And each year it surprises me that these diminished means have the power to evoke such intense feelings. This is the beginning of my favorite part of the year. The improbably lush greenness of Italian arum makes such a fitting contrast to the newly fallen oak leaves, especially after a wet period when the leaves not only take on a richer color but also yield their sweet fragrance. All of my life I’ve loved the fragrance of damp, newly fallen oak leaves. If heaven has a fragrance, this is it. It’s a fragrance which is nearly duplicated in the flowers of Camellia sasanqua, and since the camellia blooms when the oak leaves are falling, the comparison is easy to make.
Just those three elements – the Italian arum, the oak leaves and the camellias - work together to form a seasonal garden as deeply moving as any. The appeal of this combination is not merely visual. You can certainly place those three plants so that they fulfill whatever design aspirations you might have. But that’s not the point. The oak leaves and the camellia flowers have the ability to move me on a much deeper level, as fragrances often do. And there is something very uplifting about the camellia and the arum at this time of year: as the days grow shorter and other plants are closing down for the season, they seem to be defying the general trend by surging into growth or bloom. They are doing something when the rest of the garden is dying. It’s this doing something which makes the difference: there are plenty of evergreen plants both herbaceous (such as Rohdea japonica) and woody (Skimmia and Sarcococca are favorites here) or neither one nor the other (Ruscus and Danaë) which are lovely at this time of year. But they are not doing anything right now (unless you count the static fruiting of the Ruscus and Danaë ). If you look around carefully, you’ll see lots of other little odds and ends which are wintergreen and have taken on a renewed glow as the deciduous trees lose their leaves and the light levels, overall dropping quickly, actually increase under the deciduous trees. Suddenly it seems there are tufts of vivid green mosses and liverworts. Surely they weren’t there all summer?
It’s when I begin to notice these things that I realize that I’ve finally made the transition from summer into late fall successfully.

Gardening in the cold

The transition from summer into fall is often an awkward one for me. First of all, there is the need to adjust to the change from daylight savings time to standard time. This throws me for a loop every year: it takes me weeks to get used to this. And there is a double whammy involved with this: the days are rapidly getting shorter at this time of year, and for weeks I wander around the house at 6 P.M. looking out at the surrounding blackness and wondering if it’s time to go to bed. Oh, it’s only 6:30? I guess I’ll force myself to stay up longer. What, it’s only 7? What can I do to stay awake for a few more hours? By 8:30 it hardly matters what I’m doing: I start to nod off. It’s now early December and I’m still struggling with this.
The other challenge at this time of year is to make the daylight hours pay. The mornings are cold, and if the day is cloudy and there is no sun, it takes real will power to get out there and address the cold, damp earth. As long as I’m dressed properly, once I get started I’m usually happy. But getting started is sometimes a problem.
And then there is this: somewhere I read a story in which one character upbraided another character for his decision to hire a sixty-five year old gardener: “he’ll never get anything done” the one said. Well guess what? I’ve hired a sixty-five year old gardener. He’s the only one I can afford. He’s got good intentions, but to tell the truth he works very deliberately, does not take instruction well, is very stubborn and can be a bit cranky when things don’t go well. On the other hand, he’s very versatile, and if the outdoor work gets him down, he simply comes in and starts to write blog entries or waste the day drifting from one You Tube music video to another.

Witch hazel two-for

I was standing in the kitchen the other day absentmindedly looking out over the garden. An unexpected cloud of yellow caught my eye: hundreds of soft yellow witch hazel flowers were blooming. The yellow was unexpected because the witch hazel which grows in that position is the orange-red cultivar ‘Feuerzauber’. What I was seeing were some maturing sprouts from the stock on which the named cultivar had been grafted.

If someone had told me about this happening in their own garden, I probably would have suggested that the yellow flowers were those of Hamamelis virginiana, a species sometimes used as a stock for choice cultivars. But now that I’ve seen these in my own garden, I wonder. Hamamelis virginiana as I know it as an element in the local flora has much smaller flowers than the ones I’m seeing on the plants now in bloom. But what other Hamamelis would be blooming at this time of year with plain yellow flowers?

Aeolian Woes

Last weekend I toured the garden checking for things to do before the ground freezes. The pergola caught my eye, and it occurred to me that the hurricane season had passed for this year without any wind problems. My forty foot pergola is built on the gravity principle: gravity is the only force holding it together. The strong wind yesterday revealed once again the limitations of that system. Today, all of the long runners and cross beams of the pergola are on the ground, blown down one by one in yesterday’s winds. The pergola piers themselves are still upright and wreathed in the collapsed tangle of climbing roses. This happened once before as the tail end of a hurricane passed through. I’ll be working alone as I attempt to put everything right, and past experience has shown me that it’s rough, painful work. As all real gardeners know, gardening is a blood sport. I’ve got enough to keep me busy for the next few weeks without the pergola problem, so the roses might very well spend the winter on the ground. If so, I’ll have to get them up before the buds for vegetative growth start to swell: once that happens, they will be too fragile to successfully withstand the rough work involved in pushing the canes back into position.

Monday, December 3, 2007

What happened to November?

November passed without a single blog entry: what was going on? Part of the explanation is that this year we experienced the most abrupt transition from summer weather to autumnal weather: over a matter of only days the heat and humidity ended and the rains began, rains accompanied by a roughly twenty degree drop in the daily temperature high.
In recent years November has emerged as the busiest and most important month in my gardening year. October used to be the most important, but in recent years October has in effect been a summer month: hot, humid and frost free right through the month. The prolonged heat and drought we experienced this year only exacerbated this trend. I like to wait until daytime temperatures don’t top 70º F before I take on the heavy work. As a result, none of that got done during October of this year.

In fact, it was well into November before I really got in the mood for gardening. Mail order bulbs have been on hand for months, but I had not the least interest in them. Now I’m pushing hard to get everything done before the ground freezes – if it does.

Are we witnessing the Mediterraneanization of our climate?