Death From Above

ducklingsIf you’re a duckling, death looms large. Injury & Disease are constant companions, and being nothing more than fluff and water, you’re easily squished by hoofed mammals, humans, even other ducks. There are a thousand things that like to eat you; from dogs, cats, and most quadrupeds, to the large bass in the pond, to snakes (though you’re generally too fast for those) to the most notorious of all, snapping turtles, who rise silently from below while you’re paddling innocently about, and swallow you in a single bite. In my almost two decades of having ducks around the place, I thought I had seen every method of duckling destruction known to man, but this past weekend provided a first. I was out in the garden, mowing the pasture, when I noticed that a great blue heron was wading along the shoreline of the pond. I didn’t think much about it, as the bloody bird had already fished out the $300 worth of large koi I had specially mail-ordered in last spring. So, I thought, let it eat a bluegill or two, if it could catch one – welcome to it. Obviously the ducks felt the same way, as they were merrily swimming near the heron, just out of range… Supposedly.  One of hatchlings, however, strayed out of the green zone near its mother, and Bam! Before I could even move a muscle, the heron had reached out, skewered the poor thing in a single thrust, flipped its head back, and chugged, chugged, chugged it down.

Over and out little duckling.

I chased the heron away of course; and of course, it will be back, silently stalking the shallows; there’s nothing I can do about that. Hopefully though the remaining ducklings –  never terribly bright under the best of circumstances – have been imprinted with a valuable lesson and will henceforth steer a wider heron berth, having discovered that for a duck, death comes not only from below, but from above as well.


Birthday Bees


The hive with the cover off and the top honey super already removed. (The bottom two are left for the bees.) In high summer, a single hive can contain over 50,000 inhabitants.

Today is my birthday, and many years ago, as my present, my mother gave me bees.

A bit unusual, I grant you, but it had been my request after all, and in truth, the bees arrived in the form of a check that was duly deposited and spent on bees the following spring. But no matter: for all intents and purposes I received bees for my birthday, and they’ve been one of the nicest presents I’ve ever gotten. Each year they reward my not inconsiderable efforts at keeping them healthy with millions of pollinating visits to plants around the garden, plus, in most seasons, an ample crop of honey.

Many people are discouraged from beekeeping by fear of being stung, and that’s a shame.  While I’ll admit the sight of thousands of bees crawling about right under your nose can be  disconcerting to the novice, once you’re properly garbed, there’s really nothing to be concerned about. Besides, bees are generally pacific creatures who no more want to sting you than you want to be stung – they, after all, sacrifice their life with that prick, so are naturally hesitant to employ their weapon of last resort.


The frames filled with honey

The process of harvesting the honey is really quite easy. The first step is to employ what’s called a fume board – essentially just a box with some cloth attached. You spray the fabric with an herbal substance that the bees find very unpalatable, and place the cover over the hive. In just a few minutes, the bees have vacated the top box, or super, which holds the 10 vertical frames that the bees have filled with honey.

The next part is really the hardest: getting the top super off the hive. It weighs a good 80-100 pounds fully loaded with honey. And fully loaded it was when I removed it yesterday. In the beekeeping world, it really doesn’t get any better than the picture on the right: a frame with each hexagonal cell perfectly filled and capped. Removing the honey is a fairly easy, albeit sticky process: the tops of the cells are opened using a special self-heating knife, and then the frames are placed in a centrifuge, which spins out the honey. Sieved and bottled, it’s ready for the table, or rather many tables, as a single super will yield 3-5 gallons of honey – as my delighted friends and relatives will attest.

Yes, birthday bees: a honey of a gift that keeps on giving.

Thanks, Mom.


Dividing Oriental Poppies

poppy1This spring the clump of ‘Victoria Louise’ oriental poppies in the long border sent up at least 50 blooms. While the display was truly spectacular, I found it a bit too concentrated, so I decided that dividing and spreading the poppies out along the length of the bed would improve the border’s balance next spring.  Unfortunately with poppies you have to wait until the foliage dies back before you can move them, which generally means the heat of August – and true to form, the chosen day dawned hot, humid and 90.

Ah well, now or never….

The process of division turned out to be remarkably simple: simply pop the clump from the ground, shake off the soil, and separate out logical divisions based on how the fleshy roots separate.

poppy2The only real trick to the process is making sure that up remains up: if you’ve already removed the dried foliage, it can be difficult to tell from the roots alone which direction is skyward. As you can see, in my case the foliage was still attached, and I immediately replanted  5 divisions in the border, this time however, setting the poppies slightly farther back in the bed than previously, to make sure that there was a suitable fronting plant to hide the poppy foliage as it dies back next spring. Spreading asters, mums, boltonia and other fall bloomers planted just to the side are ideal candidates for this kind of thing; or, as I did, you can wait and insert a container of annual rudebekias to fill the gap left by the poppy. The one other advantage of dividing now is that you can get a very good sense of the varying degrees of camouflage you’ll get from the poppy’s nearest neighbors plants – unlike in the spring when the poppy towers above its barely emergent companions.

So, let’s keep our fingers crossed for a good display next season!


Plum Out of Luck


The fungal disease, black knot, on the now deceased Fellenburg pear.

Today was a sad day in the orchard. I was forced to cut down the two remaining Fellenburg plum trees, as they were riddled with Black Knot. This destructive fungal disease, which produces large, ugly black excrescences on the branches,  is almost impossible to eradicate once established. I first noticed this problem several years back, and stupidly didn’t pay attention – primarily because I wasn’t familiar with the disease, and didn’t realize its severity. Early removal of the growths, and treatment with fungicides might, and I stress might, have halted the advance. I tried both this spring to no avail. In any event it’s too late now. My only recourse is to plant new trees next spring, this time, choosing a more resistant cultivar, like ‘President.’ In any event, no more August plum cake for a few years…

And so it goes…


Of Cucumbers, Pickling and Otherwise

picklingThis year, I decided to grow only pickling cucumbers. No, that’s not precisely true. I tried, twice, sowing seeds of a special Armenian variety I got from Johnny’s Select Seeds, and twice it failed. (The cold wet season we’ve had probably has something to do with it, but the pickling cucumbers did just fine…) In any event, pickling cucumbers are what I have, and that’s just as well, as there’s no finer use for a cucumber than a refrigerator pickle. If you’ve never tried this simple method, you should: take a 5 gallon jar, a cup of salt, a couple of tablespoons of white vinegar, and some dill (the exact quantities don’t need to be precise) and fill the jar with as many well washed cucumbers as you can, then top off with water. If I can manage to keep my hands out of the jar for two days, the entire batch will be ready. Normally however, a few disappear every six or eight hours until there’s none left. The brine, by the way, can be reused for the next batch. Just don’t let the pickles sit in the bath too long: they will convert to full fledged pickles, rather than the “half-cooked” kosher type, fairly quickly.


Elements of the Victorian Garden: Lawn, Shrubs and Trees

If you accept the Victorian metaphor of the landscape as a series of distinct outdoor rooms, with the hardscaping forming the “walls”, “floors”, and “doorways,” of these rooms, then it’s easy to visualize the next step in the building process– ornamenting the room with  “furniture” (trees and shrubs) and “carpets” (lawns). Before you place a single plant though, you need to understand the Victorian concept of the lawn, which is very different from our own.

We live today in an age in which the lawn has emerged as the premiere feature of many gardens. In many places in fact, the lawn has become the garden: in the United States, we spend more on lawns and lawn care than any other aspect of our landscape.  Although the Victorians were equally concerned about the appearance of their lawns, their efforts in creating them were directed to an entirely different end. A good lawn was required not as an ornament in itself, but to provide a verdant canvas upon which to show off the principal decorations of the garden — the trees, shrubs and flowers that were the true heart of the garden. The fact that the lawn also made a perfect surface for entertainment was a happy bonus.

Placement of the lawn was a fairly easy proposition: like a fine rug, it was simply laid down to adorn the empty spaces between major structural elements of the landscape.  Placement of the “furniture” however– the trees, shrubs and flowers of the garden was a much more complicated proposition, and Victorian gardening books go to great lengths in describing the proper ways to “ornament the lawn.”

To understand how the Victorians placed plants in their gardens, its important to realize that once again there has been a complete sea change as to how we view our landscapes. These days, more often than not we choose plants for exceeding utilitarian purposes: a large conifer to block and unpleasant view, shrubs to hide an ugly foundation; a large tree to shade a hot terrace. Utilitarianism above all. Even the most purely ornamental portions of the landscape, like perennial borders, often function purely as a means to an end. While Victorian gardeners were certainly concerned with these practicalities too, by and large Victorian gardens were much more decorative than we are accustomed to today. Part of the reason for this was because trees, shrubs and flowers were often chosen not to fulfill a purpose, but as objects of art. The idea of plants as specimens, to be noticed and admired, was very much the mindset of the times. Interesting foliage color or leaf shape, unusual habit, or pure novelty were all considered ample justifications for inclusion in the landscape.

Notice how in this period illustration, shrubs are placed individually in the lawn as objects of art, very different from our modern conception of how we locate shrubbery in the landscape.

Notice how in this period illustration, shrubs are placed individually in the lawn as objects of art and admiration, very different from our modern conception of how we locate shrubbery in the landscape.

Remember that the 19th century was a time of tremendous change in the garden: beginning in the 1840’s, huge advances in hybridization combined with numerous collecting expeditions to all corners of the globe resulted in an incredible influx of new plants into the Victorian garden. Even the more modest landscapes gardens soon began to bulge with exotic introductions. The zest for novelty, though, had a distinctive downside: many gardeners succumbed to a tendency to try to cram their gardens with as many specimens as possible, and shortly after the Civil War, warnings against such excess became common for Victorian gardening guides.  Trees, shrubs and flower beds should not simply be randomly placed in the lawn, they warned. Artful composition was required, as revealed in these three tips from Long’s, Ornamental Gardening For Americans, 1896:

Ornamenting the Lawn
1) Let it be noted at the outset, that the partly open feature of a landscape is most essential, if we would have beautiful gardens. The open area affords a field for viewing the garden-beauty, a space for admitting cool breezes and sunshine; a play ground for shadow, and then, most important of all, that degree of general repose and breath, without which no garden can be satisfactory. The open lawn spaces, these “playgrounds for shadow” are one of the most distinctive features of the Victorian landscape. Unencumbered by plantings, they were clearly designed to enhance the experience of the garden with views across the property to the vistas beyond.

2) In employing trees and shrubs for ornament, such a selection should be aimed at ensuring the greatest possible degree of beauty and interest attainable. The right idea in the garden is to bring together such kinds of trees and shrubs as possess contrasting qualities. Beautiful effects spring from combining differently tinted species and varieties of the same genus: for instance: the light and dark Spruces, Pines, and others, may be contrasted with one another, and so on with different kinds indefinitely. In general, these groupings were designed with the largest material or most visually massive material towards the center, with lighter and lower material towards the edges. The chief idea was to effectively pair and contrast plants with complementary colors, textures and shapes.  Rather than a straight line of a single species, natural looking plantings of mixed shrubs were the preferred method for creating boundaries in the ornamental areas of the garden.

3) In the matter of general style and location of groups, it is obvious, as we consider the importance of retaining certain open stretches of lawn, that as a rule the masses must, in all small spaces, be set along the margins of the grass plat, keeping the center open. In all fair sized places, the boundary masses may jut inwards to a considerable distance here and there, and some isolated clumps be introduced for creating minor vistas. It is the special merit of the grouping system that it tends to give an enlarged idea of the size of the place. Grounds with the boundaries shut off by masses, and those arranged with irregular outlines, will look larger than they would if the boundary lines were plainly in sight.

For more on Victorian Gardens, check out my book: From a Victorian Garden


Elements of the Victorian Garden: Walks and Drives

When well located, walks and drives convey the idea of habitable-ness, imparting an air of welcome and freedom to a home and grounds, and in no slight degree seem to promote the beauty of the place. The most important walks and drives are those at the entrance…. Architects ask that a house be thus seen to show it at its best. We should aim to make the first view of a residence and grounds as favorable as possible.
Long, Ornamental Gardening For Americans, 1896

Well made carriage drives, like this one at Point Ellice House in British Columbia, were critical parts of the Victorian landscape. Photo: From a Victorian Garden, Courtesy, Archives of British Columbia

Well made carriage drives, like this one at Point Ellice House in British Columbia, were critical parts of the Victorian landscape. Photo: From a Victorian Garden, Courtesy, Archives of British Columbia

The Victorians lavished tremendous attention on their walks and drives, both as a practical means of entrance and egress, as well as an aesthetic pleasing link between the various areas of the gardens. While today’s gardener has not forgotten the value of the former, the latter is an entirely another matter. Very often nowadays, walks and drives are laid down without much thought as to how the paving moves through the landscape, or the impact they will have on the look of the garden as a whole. The unfortunate result is that very often a side or front yard begins to resemble suburban mall parking lot. In the same way that it is important that fences match the design and feel of the house, it’s critical that sufficient time, energy and effort be invested in garden paths and drives to be sure that they match the overall style of the garden as a whole.

Victorian gardening manuals abound with extensive advice on making paths and drives. In general they consisted of crushed stone and gravel, which was the staple of Victorian landscapes.  Solid surfacing such as brick and stone was actually quite rare outside of major urban areas, due to the high cost of transport. (Concrete and asphalt, never particularly appropriate to the garden setting, didn’t become common until well after 1900.) Unlike today’s gravel paths though, Victorian paths were quite elaborately constructed, using multiple layers of crushed stone and gravel, with the coarsest material on the bottom, rising through more finely grained material at the top. This layering technique produced an extremely hard, durable surface that drained quickly even in the wettest weather. Additionally, the walks were periodically rolled after heavy rains to produce a flat, even surface.

Steel rollers, like this one at Point Ellice, were essential for the proper maintenance of gravel drives.

Steel rollers, like this one at Point Ellice, were essential for the proper maintenance of gravel drives. Photo: From a Victorian Garden, courtesy Susan Seubert

In terms of design, the Victorians firmly believed in combining “grace with utility”, and one of the ways this was achieved was by paying close attention to how the line of walks and drives moved through the landscape.  Although straight lines were not unheard of, (especially in small urban gardens where space was restricted, or in purely practical areas like the kitchen gardens, at larger sites, Victorian walks and drives were generally governed by the eye. Laid out in pleasant bends and curves, they always made sure though that there was some apparent reason for the deviation, even if one had to be created through artificial props like evergreen plantings. So fond in fact were the Victorians of these curves that as the century wore on that taste-makers of the day were forced to speak out against the practice of making too many unnecessary deviations:

It is no unusual thing to see the owner of a neat cottage make himself perfectly ridiculous by the way in which he lays out the walk from the street to his front door. There is a prevailing opinion that such walks should be curved ones, and gentlemen, often otherwise shrewd and intelligent, place themselves without question in the hands of some self-styled “garden architect,” and thus manage to make themselves the laughing stock of a neighborhood.

There was a well marked instance of this in a garden occupying a block in almost the center of Jersey City, where a man pretending to have a full knowledge of the subject, induced the proprietor to have a walk running about one hundred yards from the street to the house, made so curved that its length was nearly twice the distance. It was hard on the butcher’s and grocer’s boys, and it was said that even book-peddlers, sewing-machine agents, and lightning-rod men looked ruefully at it and left him in peace.

If walkways were intended to curve, the Victorians preferred that plantings frame the points of curvature to provide a visual "excuse" for the deviation, even if the "excuse" was installed after the walkway.

If walkways were intended to curve, the Victorians preferred that plantings frame the points of curvature to provide a visual "excuse" for the deviation, even if the "excuse" was installed after the walkway.

Some old authority on this subject (presumably Edward Kemp – MDW) says that there “never should be any deviation from a straight line unless from some real or apparent cause.” So if curved lines are insisted on, a tree, rock, or building must be placed at the bend as a reason for going around such obstacles. It will be evident to any one who reflects upon the matter, that a curved walk running a distance of a hundred yards or so, from the street to the house, across an unplanted lawn, is utterly absurd. All short foot-walks from the street to the house should be straight, entering from the street at as near right angles as possible, and leading direct to the front door. There should be no necessity for a carriage road to the front entrance of a house, unless it is distant at least 100 feet from the street, and then a drive is best made by having an entrance at each side of the lot……..

The width of the roads or walks must be governed by the extent of the grounds. For carriage-way the width should be no less than ten feet, and for foot-walks, five-feet. Nothing is more annoying than to have a shower-bath in early morning from the dew from an overhanging branch in your narrow walk. We often see gardens of considerable pretensions where the walks are not more than three feet wide, where it is utterly impossible for two persons to walk abreast without getting their dresses torn or faces scratched by overhanging branches. Besides, it argues a narrowness in the owner, particularly if the grounds are at all extensive, and looks as if he were determined to cultivate every foot of land. Of course, it is another matter when the garden plot is limited to the width of a city lot (20 or 25 feet); then such economy of space is perfectly excusable.

Henderson, Gardening for Pleasure, 1893

Finally, the choice of surfacing is critically important: it’s very crucial to select a surface that won’t fight with the rest of your landscape. While gravel is often the most appropriate for many historic homes, it does require maintenance and upkeep; a modern version of the gravel drive – tarred asphalt overlaid with gravel – gives the appearance of an aggregate surface without revealing the hard surface underneath. In urban areas, hard paving based on the house works well. For example, if your home is made of brick, then extending brick out into the landscape may be appropriate. If your landscape is rocky, stone may be a good choice. For an area near the shore, crushed oyster shells or sea stones set in mortar would work well.  The important idea is to make sure that the paving surfaces contribute to the year round interest of the property. By all means however, avoid using deadly black asphalt or ugly unadorned concrete: there’s no quicker way to cry out “ugly modern” than these surfaces. Whichever method you choose, however, don’t forget the edging: paths and drives with clearly defined edges will add a clean and tidy look to the landscape throughout the entire year.

(For more on Victorian garden design, be sure to check out my book, From a Victorian Garden)


A Windfall…of Lilies

liliesHigh winds over the weekend produced an expected windfall: several towering stems of oriental lilies, some 6′ tall, were snapped off during a violent thunderstorm, and now grace the dining room with their scent and smell. I can’t say I objected too terribly. I’m a huge fan of Asian lilies indoors, ever since I visitied Chateau sur Mer in Newport many years ago, and was captivated by how a large bouquet of liles absolutely filled the mansion with the richest of scents. Since then,  I’ve always grown lilies, both for enjoyment in the garden, where they make stupendous displays, as well as for use indoors. Asian lilies make fantastic cut flowers, and will reward you with sprays of blossoms each year, as long as you remember not to cut too far down the stem, and leave sufficient foliage for the bulb to store energy for next year’s show. Another interesting trick I often employ: buy lily bulbs in the spring, store them in the vegetable drawer in the fridge, and plant them in pots sequentially every few weeks for flowers throughout the entire summer. Once they’ve finished blooming, these bulbs can then be set out into the garden for a permanent perennial display. One important lily caveat, however: since the introduction of the miserable Scarlet lily beetle to the US several decades ago, a once or twice spraying with a systemic insecticide is now an unfortunately necessity, as left unchecked, the beetles will ravage the lily stems, foliage and flowers until there is nothing left. I generally spray as soon as the lily foliage appears above ground in the spring, as the little red buggers are inevitably there to greet the leaves long before any other insect is moving in the garden. Fortunately organic help may be on the way, as several species of predatory wasps, which control the beetle population naturally in Europe, have been introduced in New England under a test program at the University of Rhode Island.


Defining the Victorian Garden

As a percentage of housing stock in the US and Canada, Victorian homes come in second only to modern construction. So this leads to the question, what kind of landscape is appropriate for Victorian homes? Or perhaps, even more fundamentally, what makes a garden “Victorian” in the first place?

Perhaps the most distinguishing element of the gardens of this period, especially when compared to our landscapes today, is the quality of their design – the way in which the house and the garden act as a single unit. In a Victorian garden, you sense immediately that the landscape embraces the architecture, linking it to the land, like a rose gently twinning up a delicate arbor. In fact, the Victorian preference for the term “home grounds” when describing house and garden underscores the association between architecture and nature. This stands in great contrast with modern “landscapes”, which even when well designed in and of themselves, often appear divorced from the building that stands in their midst. This dichotomy is even more evident when the landscape has been put together piecemeal over a large number of years in response to changing whims of different owners. The result is often a hodgepodge of unrelated elements that entirely ignore each other and the house. Nothing could have been farther from the Victorian ideal.

This image of the Victorian garden, taken from a leading garden magazine of the time, reveals the social nature of Victorian landscapes.

This image of the Victorian garden, taken from a leading garden magazine of the time, gives us a glimpse not only of the layout, but also of the social nature of Victorian landscapes: that great Victorian pastime, a game of croquet, is in full swing.

Victorian landscapes were also pre-eminently social. In many ways, they were like stage sets for lucky homeowners and their privileged guests to act out an endless series of entertainments — luncheons and teas, lawn games, fêtes, elaborate outdoor dinners, or merely intimate strolls. In this modern age of air conditioned quarters, when many people’s only contact with the outdoors in the summer is commuting to and from work, it’s hard for us to remember that for a large portion of the year, the garden was the only cool place around. People lived in their gardens during the warm summer months. Victorian gardens were used daily, intensively, and their design reflected that use: Gardens were laid out to hold something in reserve, to encourage a sense of exploration and mystery. Views were framed and expanded, paths deliberately curved to hide their ends, beds of scented flowers located at unexpected turns, all to delight and distract the passerby. In the way we might value our TV or stereo, gardens were sources or relaxation and entertainment in a much quieter age.

Perhaps most importantly, Victorian gardens were expected to be productive as well as aesthetically pleasing. While in many ways the Victorians invented the modern ornamental landscape, with their love of newly discovered annuals and strange shrubs and trees from exotic lands, they would be appalled to the extent that modern gardens have abandoned any semblance of productivity. During the Victorian era, most families depended on their lots to produce a large part of the fruit and vegetables they consumed over the course of the year,  especially in winter. Even near large urban centers, where food concerns were less pressing, no self-respecting homeowner would consider even a largely ornamental a landscape complete without at least a few grape vines, an apple, or a plot of spring greens.

So for the Victorian gardener, the goal was to create unified ‘home grounds’ where house, garden and nature all worked together as one; to furnish a beautiful setting for relaxation and social entertainment;  and provide a productive, yet esthetically pleasing source of fresh fruits and vegetables for the home.

All of which remain admirable aims for homeowners today.

For more information on Victorian Gardens, be sure to check out my book: From A Victorian Garden


From the Kitchen Garden: New Potatoes

potatoesNow this may surprise many of my friends who well know my general dislike of potatoes (not even French fries) but I must admit even I, non-spuds man that I am, love new potatoes fresh from the garden. The first ones are in this morning, and I plan to use them this evening in a favorite recipe from our old Cultivated Garden NPR show, which employs an ancient Spanish/Moorish technique of baking the potatoes under a thick bed of sea salt. (The Chinese (and many Asian cuisines) also use salt as a way of creating a “crust” to seal in the natural juices of many foods, including fish and shellfish.)  Serve the potatoes with this excellent green sauce made from capers, parsley, baby pickles and garlic.

Recipe: Roasted Potatoes with Salt Crust and Spanish Green Sauce
The Potatoes:
1 lb. new potatoes
About 4 to 5 cups coarse sea salt or Kosher salt

The Green Sauce:
2 cups finely chopped fresh parsley
4 scallions, finely chopped
1/2 green pepper, chopped
1/2 cup chopped cornichons or gherkin pickles
1/4 cup capers, chopped?2 cloves garlic, minced?1/2 cup good olive oil
1/4 cup sherry or wine vinegar

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the potatoes in a large roasting dish and cover with the salt, making sure the potatoes are completely covered. Roast for about 45 minutes to an hour. Meanwhile, mix all the ingredients for the green sauce and let sit about 30 minutes.
To test for doneness: push the salt to the side and insert a small, sharp knife into the potato; it should be tender. To serve, remove the potatoes from the salt, brushing off all the salt flakes and serve them hot with the green sauce.
Serves 4.