A Boxwood Love Affair

For the first 18 years of my gardening career, I lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For you non-Midwesterners, that’s Zone 5A territory, which in horticultural parlance translates into short, hot summers and long, cold winters. Very long, very cold winters. So cold, in fact, that most broad-leaved evergreens. like holly and rhododendrons, won’t survive there. Thus, it wasn’t until a vacation trip to Washington DC with my mother at age ten that I first experienced one of the most common all broad-leafs, the boxwood. I remember the day quite clearly. It was a blistering afternoon at Mt. Vernon.  The gravel crunched wearily underfoot, and the entire landscape seemed to sag under the August sun. Having finished the non-air conditioned house tour, we fled to the garden for relief. There, I got my first glimpse of those crisp lines of green that happily defied the heat, neatly edging the pathways with prim and proper dips and bows that somehow seemed the essence of what a traditional landscape should be. I was immediately entranced by this graceful plant, and remain so to this day, having rarely failed to include at least one member of this delightful clan in the gardens I design, even if only in pots.

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This garden, which I designed last year for a client in Plymouth, features beds of mixed shrubs and perennials edged with dwarf box. While still individuals for the moment, the boxwoods will quickly knit together to form a single, sculptural line.

I’m certainly not alone in this admiration for boxwood. Common box (Buxus sempervirens) has been in Western gardens so long that there is considerable doubt as to the species’ ancestral home. Surely the boxwood is native to central Europe. But precisely where remains a mystery, thanks largely to the Romans, who actively spread the species throughout the Mediterranean basin and beyond, completely obscuring its source. Their interest in the shrub was wholly motivated by the boxwood’s uncanny ability to be sheared into elaborate topiaries, one of the standard features of classical landscapes. Thus, for over four hundred years, wherever a Roman garden was to be found, there too was found the boxwood. With the fall of the Empire and the collapse of ornamental gardening, the cultivation of box slipped into desuetude. But the plucky little shrub wasn’t at all fazed: it simply abandoned its formal surroundings for the pleasures of the countryside. By the Middle Ages, it was to be found growing wild all over Europe in numerous forms: from foot-high dwarf cultivars to towering giants over 25 feet tall.

The boxwood’s resurgence in Western gardens is owed almost entirely to the smallest member of the family – the one I first met at Mt Vernon, – Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’. Somewhere in 16th century this little plant was found to be absolutely ideal for edging, perfect for forming the elaborate knots and patterns that were then the height of gardening fashion. Topiary, too, returned to Western gardens about this time, and the larger box varieties were once again pressed into service with incredible zeal. William Cobbett, author of The English Gardener, echoed the popular sentiment that “If there be a more neat and beautiful thing in the world [than box], all I can say is that I never saw such a thing.” So popular was boxwood, in fact, that it became the dominant feature in many landscapes, with the ensuing backlash such horticultural monopolies inevitably inspire. Complaining that the gardens of the day were “stuffed too thick with box” many landscape designers of the late 18th and early 19th century ruthlessly ripped out centuries old box gardens, to be replaced with more “modern” shrubs and flowers. Once again the durable boxwood simply shrugged off these changes in garden fashion with the horticultural equivalent of “we’ll just see about that” – the wise old shrub knowing full well that it was far too useful to be banished for very long. Sure enough, by the early 20th century, boxwood had made a triumphant return to European gardening scene, where it remains extremely popular to this day.

In contrast to overseas, here in America boxwood was never subject to such vagaries of fashion, and has remained a beloved element in our gardens since its arrival early in the colonial period. Later, as the first Europeans moved west, the boxwood moved right along with them. One of the reasons behind boxwood’s remarkable ubiquity is its ability to root readily from cuttings: snippets placed in damp sand and kept moist will firmly anchor themselves in a month or so. This meant that tiny little pots of box could be shipped by barge, boat and even covered wagon across a largely road-less county, and that boxwood gardens were often growing and established before the second wave of settlers reached their new home.

boxThanks to its ability to be shaped, box is one of the very best shrubs for adding structure and geometry to the landscape. This quality is particularly valuable in winter, when most of the garden is an amorphous mass. In sharp contrast to this laxity, the verdant boxwood stands sentinel over the white, winter landscape, maintaining form and order until finally relieved by the shrubs of spring. Nor does boxwood possess only winter appeal. On warm summer days when sunlight heats the oils in the leaves, the common box emits an extremely distinctive odor. Those who dislike the smell describe it as “musky”; for me, this wonderful fragrance seems to define “traditional,” as if the air exuded by boxwood is somehow older than the common stuff. Oliver Wendell Holmes shared my sentiments: “it is one of the odors that carries us out of time into the abysses of the unbeginning past: if ever we lived on another ball of stone than this, it must be that there was box growing on it.”

In terms of culture, box is largely untroubled by pests, though leafminers, mites and a small greenish jumping insect called the boxwood psyllid are occasional problems; each can be controlled by organic and inorganic means. Box prefers full sun, though will grow willingly in part shade, and is generally tolerant of most soils. As mentioned earlier, hardiness is more of an issue – only to Zone 5B –  and boxwood can be very susceptible to snow damage unless heavy falls are knocked off the shrub before breakage occurs. Fortunately, however, breeders have recently introduced a large number of box cultivars that are far more winter hardy than their parents – the mounding form of B. ‘Vardar Valley’ being one of my very favorites. Several, like ‘Northern Find,’ ‘Ingliss,’ ‘Northland’  have withstood temperatures in the -20 – -30 degree range, making them viable into Zone 4. For gardeners in the South, an enhanced palette of golden and variegated forms is also available.

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Lettuce for Containers

lettuce-babies1A comment yesterday from one of our readers about starting lettuce on a windowsill reminded me that I wanted to let folks know how easy it is to grow lettuce in containers, especially those varieties bred for it. Here’s a pot variety I’ve grown, and it’s great: ‘Lettuce Babies’ Butterhead, available from Renee’s Select Seed. Originally developed for the Japanese luxury market where a premium is put on flavor and quality, these delightful, perfectly formed rosettes have softly folded leaves, a lovely buttery texture, and are heat tolerant.

Not to mention very, very tasty.

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Summer Lettuce

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Here are the 'Little Gem' lettuce seedlings I planted out this morning. Started in flats, lettuce is much easier to grow.

Normally, the words “lettuce” and “summer” don’t go together, but our weather here has been so wet and cold that the lettuce seedlings I planted in June are just now ready to be set into the garden. Both are romaine types – a smaller 45-day variety called ‘Little Gem’ and a full sized, 70-day  ‘Viviane’, which I’m hoping, given adequate water and a bit of shade, won’t immediately decide to bolt. I’ll be sure to report back…

Amazingly, it’s almost time to be thinking about fall lettuces, and if you’re dying for an early crop, one the the best ways to do that is to start seeds in early August in a cool, half shaded place and transfer the seeldings into the garden after they develop a few leaves. (Lettuce seeds won’t germinate in soil that is 80 degrees F. or warmer, so there’s no sense in sowing directly in the garden in the summer.) In fact, I start all my lettuce seedlings in flats, regardless of the season. It’s much easier than direct sowing, you escape weeks of weeding and thinning, and best of all, you avoid putting your precious seedlings in the way of those voracious rabbits and other lettuce loving rodents. Whichever method you choose, here in zone 6 you have until Labor day to get started.

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Raspberry Varieties

rasberriesIt occurred to me after completing the previous post that I should mention what raspberries I grow, given the large numbers on the market. The current thicket, now about 40′ long, was originally planted during my first season hosting the Victory Garden, and now consists of two varieties, both late season, summer reds: Canby – a midseason raspberry variety that yields large fruit with excellent flavor, whose canes are virtually thorn-free; Taylor – another vigorous, winter-hardy variety with productive plants yielding delicious, bright and firm fruit medium to large in size.

I also originally planted an early variety, Reveille, which I subsequently removed when I transferred the raspberries from the upper orchard to the new vegetable garden. The although Reveille bore a decent early crop, I found the flavor didn’t hold a candle to the later types.

These varieties, and many others, can be found at my favorite of all berry nurseries, Nourse Farms.

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The Raspberries Are In!

victorioMy daily perambulation around the garden this morning confirmed that the first raspberries are in. Not that any made it into the house – I’m far too greedy for that. But soon, there will be plenty for freezing and processing. And speaking of processing, if you don’t have a little Victorio food mill, seen here at right, you should. My dad gave me this amazing little machine almost a decade ago, and I couldn’t do without it. I use it for almost anything that requires making juice or sauce: from jellies, to jams to tomato or apple sauce. You simply insert the roughly chopped & softened fruit, and it miraculously spits out the seeds and skins from one end, and the juice from another!  You can buy it from Amazon by clicking HERE for less than $50, which is the best price I’ve seen online.

And in case no Victorio is at hand, here’s a recipe that doesn’t need it. This quick berry marmalade is one of the delights of early summer. This is not a thick jam but more like a sweet, berry flavored sauce. Try it with cookies, pound cake, toast, pancakes,waffles, and muffins.

RECIPE: Quick Berry Marmalade
1 cup raspberries
1 cup strawberries, stemmed and cut in half
(half) cup black or blueberries
About 1/4 cup sugar
Grated zest and juice of a half lime or lemon

Chop the strawberries and half the berries and mix with the sugar and lime in a saucepan. Heat over low and cook, stirring occasionally, until berries lose their juice, about 5 minutes. Increase the heat, add the whole berries, and cook 8 minutes. Taste for sweetness. Let cool. Can make 2 days ahead of time.

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Tomato Update

Well, despite the continued wet cool weather (we had another several inches of rain last night)  I’m delighted to say that the tomatos seem to have recovered. My emergency trenching operation to divert the standing water, combined with pruning off the obviously damaged foliage has done the trick for the moment. (Caveat: I used an exceedingly sharp pair of florists scissors, dipped in alcohol between each cut, to prevent the spread of disease. In a wet year like this fungal and viral problems are rampant.) The pruning operation seemed to definitely help – the reduction of foliage mass allowed the plants to better ration water and oxygen while the roots recoverd. Though the plants are definitely set back a bit, they are now growing again, and my very favorite, the yellow cherry tomato ‘Sungold,’ is almost ready to give it’s first handful of tomatos. About time, it nearly August!

The New American Victory Garden, Defined

Quite a number of you have emailed me, asking questions about The New American Victory Garden, the presentation I just gave at the New York Botanical Garden.

So, here’s the scoop:

First of all, what do you mean by Victory Garden? You’re not talking about your old PBS TV show, are you?

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This period poster, one of several in my personal collection, is typical of the WWII effort exhorting patriotic Americans to grow their own produce.

No, not the show. I’m referring to the term Victory Garden, which was coined during the First World War to describe the government-led effort to encourage people on the home front to grow their own fruits and vegetables. The theory was that every pound of produce produced locally meant a pound of commercially produced produce freed up for use by the troops. (Say that a few times fast!) This campaign was re-instituted, and considerably expanded, during WWII with huge success: by 1944 almost half of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the US was grown in Victory Gardens.

After the war ended, commercial crops again flooded the market, and the financial incentive for growing food in your own backyard diminished substantially. As with everything, however, what’s old is eventually new again, and with the latest round of national financial disasters, people have once more begun to cast a critical eye towards growing a portion of their food budget. In addition, the Victory Garden concept has been given considerable help by the Green movement, as vegetables raised on your own property obviously don’t have to be shipped across huge distances – thereby saving a considerable amount of petroleum for each pound of backyard produce. Add to this the vastly superior selection, taste and quality of homegrown crops, and you have an unbeatable combination for the 21 century.

tomato bucket copySo what’s new about my New American Victory Garden?

Well, first of all, for many of us, the entire process of raising your own food is one of discovery, or perhaps more accurately, rediscovery, as by and large even we gardeners have forgotten the tricks required to bring a successful crop to table. Vegetables are not difficult to grow, but they’re not easy either, and my talk shows you some concise and easy-to-implement methods to insure an ample harvest. Secondarily, in vegetable gardening, as in any other hobby, it’s easy to get carried away and lose site of the economics. Add in a few gizmos, a bit horticultural of glamor and glitter, plus an expensive toy or two, and suddenly your desire to produce a few fresh tomatoes has morphed into several hundred dollars of money-losing enterprise. In my talk, I  show you how to avoid these pitfalls, and produce delicious, truly cost-effective food for your table.

So are you giving this talk again any time soon?

Yes, coming this winter and early spring to a home and garden show near you!

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Start Your Vegetable Garden This Autumn

A friend interested in creating his own Victory Garden recently asked me when’s the best time to start a new plot. Without a doubt, it’s autumn. Most people get motivated to plant as the last of the snow is melting from the driveway, and while spring gardens often succeed just fine, the best – and least labor intensive – time to start a garden is in the fall.  Once your plan is in hand, and you’ve chosen your site, stake our the area with stakes and string.  Then, take  the leaves that have accumulated in your yard (or borrow some from your neighbors), and place a heavy 6-8” blanket directly over the area to be gardened – even if its currently lawn. Afterward, cover with a tarp, or enclose with boards to prevent the leaves from straying all over the yard, and sit back and relax while mother nature enriches the soil for you. Over the course of the autumn and winter, the leaves will decay and be consumed by worms, in effect removing any sod and tilling the soil without any work by you. Come spring, your plot will need an initial rototilling or hand digging to lighten the soil, but nothing close to the backbreaking labor – and expense – of removing the sod and amending the soil you’d face if you started the garden in spring.

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From the Kitchen Garden: Wilted Celery, and Other Unlikely Vegetable Delights

My dear mother, now 82, visits me several times a year from Wisconsin, and it’s only a matter of a day, often hours, before I hear the same refrain from the kitchen:

(Sounds of muffled rummaging…)
“Michael, these vegetables in your refrigerator should be wrapped! Look at this celery, it’s wilted!”
“It’s supposed to be that way, Mom.”
“What do you mean? It’s all white and wobbly.”
“It tastes better that way! Just put it back.”
“What do you mean, tastes better? How could it? It’s not green! Shall I take it out and feed it to the chickens?”
“No, Mom, it’s for us. I’ll use it. Just wait and you’ll see…”

Top, the normal celery you get from the store; bottom, blanched "wilted" celery ready for cookiing.

Top, the normal celery you get from the store; bottom, blanched "wilted" celery ready for cooking.

What my mother is forgetting is that in this supermarket age of steroid vegetables, not all food is supposed to be green, stiff and pretty. In fact, before my mother was born, celery would NEVER have been eaten green. Such vegetables would have been deliberately blanched, or whitened, before harvest to tenderize and sweeten the stalks. (Don’t confuse this “blanching”, which derives its meaning from the French, blancher, to whiten, with the cooking term “blanching,” which oddly enough means to scald briefly to fix the color.)

A century ago vegetables were blanched directly out in the garden in one of three ways, depending on species: 1) by planting self-blanching cultivars; 2) by using special pots to shut out the light; or by 3) mounding up the soil around the stems to ensure darkness. Celery and asparagus were the most common recipients of this technique, but other branched species, such as rhubarb, were often blanched as well. (Belgian endive, actually the blanched shoots of chicory, is still produced this way.)

Today, given the odd pack of leftover celery, you can duplicate something of this process right in your own refrigerator, as my Mother has discovered to her dismay. Simply take the celery from its bag, remove and use the outer stalks (once green, they will remain so) and let the pale inner core sit – unwrapped! – in the refrigerator drawer. After several weeks, it will whiten slightly and go quite limp in an abortive attempt to conserve moisture. This dehydration heightens the natural sugars in the stalks, and means the celery is ready for eating. The flavor is superb – celery without the sharpness – and is perfect for use in a variety of recipes where the taste of celery, not the crunch or bitterness, is called for… as in my favorite  summer lunch, curried chicken salad:

Wilted Celery Curried Chicken Salad

6 boneless chicken breast halves, skin removed, poached in 2 cups homemade chicken stock and ½ cup white wine.
1 cup chopped wilted celery
½ cup diced red unpeeled apple
½ cup grapes (or 1 full cup of either grapes or apples)
¼ cup coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)
1 teaspoon curry powder (or more to taste)
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
½ cup mayonnaise (light mayo will work as well, especially if you add more stock reduction)

Preparation: Poach the chicken until done, remove to a tray, allow to cool; dice. Reduce stock to ½ cup, and combine liquid with other ingredients in a large bowl, adding more or less mayonnaise to your taste. Cover and refrigerate until serving time.
Serves 6

“So Mom, how was that curried chicken salad we had for lunch?”
“Oh, wonderful! So tasty! Just perfect on such a hot day.”
“Didn’t mind the wilted celery, then?”
“What wilted celery?”

Case closed.

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