Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Promise of Spring

They are predicting cold rain for tomorrow night and Saturday morning, but for now, Sadie the Dog and I are enjoying a pretty fabulous day! At the moment it's 58 degrees and sunny, so we're both happy campers!

I spent a few hours this afternoon with Patti at the penthouse garden, starting to do some pruning there. We're doing a major "re-do" of the planters, so today was the day to prune some of the junipers and yews on the living room terrace. I will never understand how yews have managed to stay alive on the 42nd floor with a Southeastern exposure, in Atlanta, for ten years....but who am I to question?

At the Big House, the osmanthus (and even some of the camellias) are looking rather fried from the crazy cold windy weather of last week, and in the stepchild garden, the Chinese Mahonia is definitely a "gonner." (That's what happens when you plant a Zone 9 plant in Atlanta!) At the penthouse, even the aspidistra is looking a little stunned from the weather.

All around, though, there are signs of spring, which is keeping me in my happy mood. At the Big House, the Prunus Mume "Peggy Clark" has three blooms on it, and a ton of buds, so there should be a photo of it later in the week. Bulbs are sending up foliage everywhere (there are 5000 daffodils planted there, as well as all the rest), and here and there the muscari is in bloom. Lots of people think they're weeds, but they are one of my favorite signs that winter has an end each year. Behind the garage, the winter jasmine (above) is starting to bloom. It is not particularly pretty 11 months of the year, but winter is definitely its time to shine!

Hang in there! Spring really is coming!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Weather Rollercoaster

Growing up in New England, it was common to hear people say, "If you don't like the weather, just wait a minute." Although we get seasonal changes in Atlanta, they aren't typically as crazy as they have been this season. From record cold temperatures with snow that stayed on the ground for a week, we went to 60 degree days when we could work in t-shirts. Yesterday was blustery and cold, and today it's raining and getting steadily warmer...go figure.

This is the time of year when I'm chomping at the bit to get things into the ground. It's made even worse by the fact that the seeds have arrived for lots of new things, and they're just sitting there waiting for a few weeks before we can start sowing them indoors. I've ordered lots of cool things for spring...mignonette, wallfowers, heliotrope, etc....all of which will fry by the middle of the summer here, but will hopefully be pretty glorious for April and May. The galanthus is up and blooming at the big house, which only makes my cabin fever worse!
In the stepchild garden, we're building and fluffing on those rare days when it isn't raining...hard to believe we're still in recovery mode from two years of record drought! Most of the actual construction on the "non-potting shed" is almost done, and now it's time to do the fun stuff (the tin roof, the door, window, little architectural details, etc. ) I'm still a little bit undecided about the door and trim color, but so far this blue is winning. At the time of year, everything in the wooded area looks pretty sad, but the blue chairs are as happy as can be!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Decisions, Decisions......Needing the Help of the Brits!

So we've finally come up with some very basic decisions about the England trip. In a nutshell, probably mid-to-late September (once schools are back in session and the children have left the gardens), probably about ten days, probably concentrated in the Southern third of England (a few days in London, the balance of the time outside the city).

My family emigrated to the US four hundred years ago, but I'm still curious about the areas from which they originated, which are pretty consistently Surrey, Sussex, Norfolk. I find it fascinating that they seem to have packed up everything (including their hometown names) and came to the New World....Ipswich, England to Ipswich, Massachusetts, Portsmouth, England, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, etc.

I'd love the comments of anyone who's visited some of the gardens we're considering, since I've only narrowed the list to about 40, which is still more than a little excessive! Please remember that Frank is not a die-hard gardener, and really likes the stereotypical "English garden" look.

Here's the list, in no particular order, that seems appealing:
  • Great Dixter
  • Charleston Farm
  • Beth Chatto Gardens
  • Hidcote
  • Mottisfont Abbey
  • Osborne House
  • Sissinghurst
  • Hever Castle
  • Blenheim Palace
  • Montacute House
  • Windsor Castle and all that stuff
  • Kew Gardens
  • Vale End
  • Savill Garden
  • Hampton Court Palace
  • Nymans Garden
  • Iford Manor
  • Arley Hall
  • Kiftsgate
  • The Manor House at Upton Gray

Any personal experiences with these places? Are any of the "iconic" gardens disappointing? Are there any that I'm missing that I really need to visit?

On a retail note, I've heard that I really should visit Blooms of Bressingham, Merriments, Denman's in West Sussex, and Coton Manor Nursery. Any thoughts about these suggestions?

Lastly, how accessible is London if we choose to stay in Surrey or Sussex at a holiday cottage, rather than staying in the city? I'd really rather not drive "on the wrong side of the street" around the city!

Needless to say, I have much more faith in the recommendations of other gardeners than the internet.....looking forward to hearing your thoughts about my long list of possibilities!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Great Book!

One of my favorite books this season is Landscape Lessons, by Patricia Godwin Dunleavy. She is someone who literally grew up in the nursery business, and operates Pine Bush Nursery.

Because the book is formatted for each brief chapter to correspond to a year in the gardening calendar, it’s a very easy read that can be picked up and read whenever I find a free half hour.
This book is filled with great information, presented in a very soft and subtle manner.

The chapter I was reading last night is about camellias. To give you an idea of a typical section, here are some points that Patricia makes about camellias:

  • Planting semi-doubles rather than the larger doubles will yield more flowers with less freeze damage, since the semi-doubles open more quickly;
  • To prevent browning on camellia flowers, plant them in a spot where they won’t get morning sun until after the frost has dried;
  • If flowers have brown on the edges, it is probably cold or wind damage. If the flowers are browning from the center out, it is a fungal blight. Remove those flowers from the bush and the surrounding ground and bury or burn them;

  • Look for Camellia sinensis for the earliest bloom, then C. sasanqua, then finally C. japonica to finish out the bloom season.

  • The most cold hardy are the tea-oil varieties, C. oleifera, which are sometimes hard to find in cultivation. This variety has been hybridized with some others, however, such as “Winter’s Star,” which is easier to find. (I can vouch for “Winter’s Star” and “Winter’s Snowman” as two spectacular hybrids, since both grow in the stepchild garden. They produce incredible shows every winter, with virtually no attention from me.

I got this book from Amazon. Just for a little plug, buy it from the dealer listed as "Bibliowrite"in Ila, Georgia, if you want the copy personalized and signed.
Happy reading!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Big House Garden in Snow

The Walled Garden mostly put to bed for the winter, with a few things still popping up here and there (aren't Sweetpeas amazing to continue going in this stuff??)
The gate to the walled garden looks better with a little snow on the wreath. I know the holidays are over, but I really love this wreath that Patti made.

The koi are happily hibernating on the bottom of the pond, barely moving their gills.

Even in ridiculous cold, the cardinals are out at the feeders.

Winter Dinners - Braised Short Ribs, etc.

This abnormally cold weather has pushed me indoors this week, though I find myself endlessly making lists of what I need to do once it's warm enough to work outside again (hopefully later this week). I've just placed two seed orders, and will go through the definitive order for spring annuals with the growers next week. Each time I walk by the windows, I add another thing to the list.

In the meantime, I have gotten sucked into the Barefoot Contessa marathons on The Food Network, and spent Thursday evening watching "Julie and Julia" on Demand. Between the two, it became clear that this weather demands a good hearty dinner.

I made Ina Garten's Short Ribs last night for dinner, with very minimal tweaking. (She is one of the few Food Network people who demonstrate recipes that actually work as presented.)

This is Ina's recipe for "Scott's Short Ribs", as presented, with my very minor changes noted. She says one rib per person in print, but served three per person on her show. I did two per person. As a result, for seven adults, I did 15 ribs.

6 (15) beef short ribs, trimmed of fat
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion (2 onions)
4 cups large-diced celery (6 large stalks)
2 (1 lb) carrots, peeled and large-diced
1 small fennel, fronds, stems, and core removed, large-diced
1(3) leek, cleaned and large-diced, white part only (you can't usually buy just one leek)
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 (750-ml) bottle burgundy or other dry red wine (I used two)
Fresh rosemary sprigs
Fresh thyme sprigs
6 cups beef stock
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place the short ribs on a sheet pan, sprinkle (heavily) with salt and pepper, and roast for 15 (25) minutes. Remove from the oven. Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees F.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven and add the onion, celery, carrots, fennel, and leek and cook over medium-low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. (This step took longer for's important to caramelize the veggies in this step for flavor).Add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. Pour the wine over the vegetables, bring to a boil, and cook over high heat until the liquid is reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Tie the rosemary and thyme together with kitchen twine and add to the pot.
Place the roasted ribs on top of the vegetables in the Dutch oven and add the beef stock and brown sugar. Bring to a simmer over high heat. Cover the Dutch oven and bake for 2 (or 3) hours or until the meat is very tender.
Carefully remove the short ribs from the pot and set aside. Discard the herbs and skim the excess fat. (If you put the pot in the refrigerator for an hour, this process is much easier.) (Take pot out of the refrigerator, then.......)Cook the vegetables and sauce over medium heat for 20 minutes, until reduced. Put the ribs back into the pot and heat through. Serve with the vegetables and sauce. (This is an awesome dish to make the day before and reheat for guests). Lastly, since short ribs can be pricey, this works beautifully for a Chuck Roast or Brisket.

This is the perfect recipe to serve with a couple of bottles of wine (use the same wine you cooked with, if possible), and great bread. I also did "Rafael's Mother's Brussels Sprouts," which is like a heart attack on a plate, but I think a perfect accompaniment for this. I also like the fact that it is a real comfort food for Rafael, since his mom passed away many years ago.

3 lbs. Brussels Sprouts (they should be fresh)
1 lb. bacon, cut into 1/2" slices
6 oz. crumbled blue cheese

Trim and blanch the brussels sprouts in boiling salted water until tender. Drain. Separately, cook the bacon until crisp in a saute pan, and drain the bulk of the fat (leave about 2 t.) Toss the sprouts, the bacon and the blue cheese together, and pop into the oven for 10 minutes or so while you're heating the bread.

Ami brought the makings for hot fudge sundaes to dinner last night, which was the perfect end to a winter evening as we collapsed onto the sofa., if only my dining room looked a little more like this one......

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Cold Weather Comfort

There are certain foods that I think each of us associates with cold weather. Chili, hot bowls of soup, the list goes on and on. One of mine, rather embarassingly, is Marshmallow Fluff.

Fluff is one of America's most versatile foods in my mind (remember that I am a degreed chef.....), and instantly brings me comfort in this ridiculously cold weather. How many foods can be eaten directly out the container while standing in the pantry, made into things like Whoopie Pies, used to top hot chocolate, or (only in winter) used in bowls of breakfast oatmeal? And don't forget the famous Fluffernutter sandwich, or the fact that it's really pretty amazing with ice cream and hot fudge! (New Englanders will stand in line at an ice cream stand in a blizzard).

"The Barefoot Contessa" (Ina Garten) is often mocked for repeatedly making reference to "good foods." (good bread, good olive oil, good spices, etc., etc.) Well, Fluff is one of those things that one should never accept substitutes for. I might not be able to detect differences in various brands of peanut butter, but don't even TRY to give me one of the knockoff brands of Fluff!

It's much too cold to garden today in most of the country, so get yourself to a supermarket and buy some Fluff! And don't foget that it's a fat-free and cholesterol-free food!......what could be bad?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Cold Weather Gardening

This week's cold snap has put a bit of a damper on the gardening chores that normally get done at this time of year. Since the garden at the Big House is so flower-intensive, it's a blessing that we're able to do some things in January and February.

This week we got a bunch of pruning done (clip for a couple of hours, defrost for 15 minutes, clip for another couple of hours, etc.), and then spent one full day thinking about the warmer weather to come.

When the wind is howling, these are the days when I fully appreciate my job. What a treat to spend some time in the glass house potting up brugmansia cuts, repotting orchids, and such. We typically will buy some things for summer containers at this time of year, pot them up and let them grow out for a few months, so they're lush when they go into the containers in April.

Our Annual Snowstorm

Atlanta's once-a-year "snowstorm" came earlier than usual this year, which I'm hoping doesn't mean we should expect more this season. After 15 years in the South, I've become very accustomed to being able to garden year-round, so this is about as much of the white stuff as I want to see. We had about an inch of snow yesterday afternoon and's pretty for a couple of days, but then I'm ready for green again.

Here are some photos of the stepchild garden this morning. It's 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and still only 23 degrees, so the snow is actually staying. Fortunately we'll be back in the 40's by Monday, and the 50's by next weekend.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The English Trip

Like all couples who have been together for a number of years, Frank and I banter about just how much of the daily conversation is heard, vs. the amount that comes through as a simple of Frank's most consistent comments is that when I'm immersed in a book or the laptop, I don't tend to hear what he's saying. Three days ago I proved him wrong!

We've been discussing a major vacation for a while now, to commemorate my 50th birthday and our 25th anniversary as a couple. We've gone back and forth between a Europe trip (probably Paris), or one to the San Francisco-Napa-Santa Barbara area. Oddly, neither of us has been "wowed" by the ideas we've come up with so far, and have been almost complacent about an upcoming vacation. Usually I'm looking for the funkiest places to stay ("look, a guesthouse in the former garage of a deposed duke!") while Frank is buying every guide book known to man. This time around neither of us has been breaking any speed records to start some planning.....until three days ago.

In my usual way I was immersed in a book, and I thought I heard Frank say, "What about an English garden tour?" My brain reminded me that this is the man who HATES garden visits, and usually traipses along mildly grumbling as I make him climb the hundreds of stairs in an Italian garden (in July) only because I've told him there is a gelato bar at the top.

"England?" I asked. "Yes, maybe that part where they have that white garden, or that Great Dixter place." "A garden tour?" "But I think I like English gardens."

I had to choose between continuing the conversation and calling British Air before Frank realized what he had said........I don't remember the rest of the conversation........

Some Photos from This Morning

None of the plants are happy about this ridiculous weather (nor is the gardener.....), but I have been amusing myself all day with the "frozen broccoli" we're growing. No need for blanching and freezing once it's picked!
This photo (above) is a shot of the waterall near the large koi pond. It reminds me of the ocean at home in winter.
I think these lilies are just too cold to realize they're frozen! Let's see what happens when the temperatures rise again!
Below, the Fatsia japonica is such an elegant plant, even in this weather. When the crazy cold hits, it almost appears to be bowing to Mother Nature. Fortunately it stands right back up after a few hours of warm sunlight.

It's Crazy Cold Out There!

There seems to be a little issue with the webhost taking my photos today, so I'll post them later. For the time being, let's just say that it is RIDICULOUSLY cold in Atlanta, like the rest of the country. Hopefully if you're reading this it's in a warm place with a warm beverage (and fuzzy slippers).

Until later......