Love And Lettuce

Gorgeous Greens For Health And Happiness

How are you feeling these days? Thought so. Me too. I met my new doctor last week and was struck by her gentle questions about my mental and emotional health. My appointment was on Tuesday and she said she’d already seen four patients that week with what she described as climate and/or political depression. Well, yeah. She’s talking with colleagues and hearing similar findings, and says our distress is symptomatic of a national epidemic.

Another national epidemic concerns food safety, perhaps most notably with Romaine lettuce, which has been fingered in several recent E. coli outbreaks. Though the government investigation is still ongoing, there are multiple possible causes for E. coli contamination, from water passing through areas where livestock is grazing to field contamination from wild animals and birds (not to mention humans; many growers haven’t supplied field toilet facilities, but that’s changing). This fits right into my own ecological grief; when even organic produce may not be safe, what can we trust? Happily, there’s a simple solution: Grow your own. One great thing about greens is that they can be grown in very little space, and many will flourish in containers on a balcony or deck where garden space is limited.

A Better Way

For me, container grown greens perform best in wide pots that aren’t too deep; three- or five-gallon pots rather than tree pots or huge, tall mother pots. Fill pots with potting soil or a container soil mix, and use fresh soil each year, recycling last year’s into the compost heap. Space your starts about a foot apart in each direction, or about 8 inches for mini head types, and you’ll be harvesting in a few weeks. Cut-and-come-again loose leaf types like ruffled, vigorous Red Dog and lime green Lollo Bionda will remain productive for months, while kales will winter over, staying productive until they bloom in spring. Head lettuces can be replaced with fresh starts after harvest, but I like to let a few bolting looseleaf lettuces bloom, since pollinators of many kinds find flowering greens irresistible. You can also toss a few blossoms into salads or use them to garnish soups, with a few snippets of chives, thyme, or oregano.

Since my family is very fond of Romaine lettuce, I’m planting old favorites as well as some new-to-me varieties. We love Outredgeous red Romaine, a lightly ruffled, perfectly textured variety that can be picked as baby lettuce in just a few weeks, but takes 6-8 weeks to head up fully. Gorgeous, crisp and juicy, compact Pomegranate Crunch is one of our favorites for flavor, texture and color. An intriguing companion, Lavalamp, is speckled and streaked with red and yellow and remains tender and sweet even when a little over-mature (ask me how I know). Because my space is very limited, I’m planting some mini head Romaines, including deep red Truchas, bronze-red Breen, and fresh green Dragoon, a n especially crisp variety that provide just enough for sandwiches or a salad.

On Beyond Romaine

We like a lot of contrast in our daily salads, so I cram in as many textures and colors as I can into our greens patch. I especially like the Salanovas, which are utterly reliable and perfect for small spaces, as even in a narrow window-box, they reman productive for way longer than most lettuces. Of course I’m adding velvety, flavorful butterheads such as deep green Newham, which forms perfect, plump heads, and grass green Victoria, with tight, rounded heads like plump rosebuds. My grandkids love to pick and eat the fat little heads of Tom Thumb, a mini butterhead with tender, juicy leaves. Though I’m not a big frisee fan in general, I do enjoy tender, bitter-sweet Endive Frisee, especially if I remember to fasten the outer leaves over the inner ones to blanch them for a week or two. Curly Escarole Natacha blanches its own inner foliage and is as tender as any lettuce when young (steam or braise the older heads for a lovely side dish). Add an oakleaf or two, a few looseleaf types, and daily picking becomes an outright pleasure.

Most of my overwintered kale is still going strong, especially Black Magic, an especially compact form of dragonskin kale that fits well in small gardens. The long, narrow, iron-green leaves are even more delicious after a touch of frost, as are the ruffly, super crisp, blue-green leaves of Edibliss Italian Pink, which boasts beautiful hot pink stems and veins that sing in salads and stir fries. I’m still harvesting from Lacinato Rainbow, and my beloved perennial Kosmic Kale is going strong as well, producing masses of very tender cream and jade green foliage, come sun, come rain, come frost and snow. How does happiness fit into all this? For me, wellbeing and happiness come most readily when I’m in the garden daily, at least for the few minutes it takes to pick enough greens for soup or salad or whatever I’m making. Wellbeing and happiness spontaneously arrive when I’m making and feeding my family wholesome, beautiful food from my wholesome, beautiful garden. Food security is more than having access to food in emergencies (though these days, I feel like Red Alert could come at any moment). It’s also about feeling secure that our food is safe, nutritious, free from pesticides, nontoxic to pollinators and people alike. That feels sacred, maybe even holy. Onward!

Posted in Edible Flowers, Garden Prep, Health & Wellbeing, pests and pesticides, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Designing A Dream Garden

Lavenders are indispensable herbs

Herbs For Kitchen & Crafting

Dream assignment time! I’ve recently been asked to design an herb garden to surround a small craft cafe, a place where visitors can drink herbal teas, taste herb salts, herb butters, and herbed breads. The menu will change often but will always offer fresh herb omelets as well as daily soups and salads. In the crafting classes, people can make lavender wands and herbal sachets, bath salts, hand lotions, shampoos and body wash. What’s not to love? I’m already angling for a day job when it opens, assuming it ever does; this delicious idea is the dream child of a very busy woman. That’s so healthy! There have been several studies showing that accumulating the materials for crafting can be every bit as satisfying as actually making the whatever. If the cafe part of this dream project turns out to be just a hope for the future, the owner will still have a marvelous garden, filled with beautiful, fragrant and edible plants. Oh, and a beautiful gazebo, of course. Right?

Making up the lists of must-have plants has been delightful, not least because my own tiny garden doesn’t have space for some of my favorites, all of which I now get to use again. Like what? So glad you asked! For potpourri, cooking and crafting, we’ll need more than just the usual culinary herbs, though we’ll also have those in rich and wonderful variety. For fragrance and flavor we’ll also need roses and gardenias, meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) and santolina, as well as annuals from calendulas to salvias. We’ll also plant some Iris pallida and Iris germanica, not for their looks or scent but for their roots. Dried and finely ground (in a dedicated coffee grinder), they combine to make violet-scented orris root, a traditional fixative for potpourri and herbal sachets.

Dual Duty Herbs

Most of the herbs we’ll be using can serve both as culinary treats and as ingredients in all sorts of useful concoctions, from sachets to body care products. I hope it doesn’t need to be said that no pesticides can be used in an edible garden, or one designed to attract pollinators. Right? Please say yes. Thank you. My friend’s first request was for especially fragrant and flavorful lavenders. English lavenders (Lavandula angustifolia) make good border plants; compact and mannerly, they’re long blooming and produce the most potent essential oils. Of these, I’m especially fond of Cedar Blue, Hidcote Blue, Munsted and Vera, all excellent performers. So-called French lavenders (L. x intermedia) need heat and dry, well drained soils to give of their best, which makes them great candidates for warm-winter regions. Phenomenal, Grosso, and Provence are my top angustifolia picks, along with Fred Boutin, an especially long-stemmed form that’s fabulous for crafting.

I’m extremely fond of rosemary, not least because of the old Italian proverb; where rosemary flourishes, the women rule. Where the
herb garden needs a strong upright to mark a corner, we’ll use Tuscan Blue rosemary, a tall, slender form with bright blossoms that dry well and retain much of their color and scent. Spice Island is a pungent rosemary that’s prized for cooking, as are Perfect Skewer and Barbecue. Blue Gem has soft, azure flowers and a vivid flavor that’s popular in cocktails, while Sudbury Blue might be the most aromatic of all, great for bread and herb salts as well as crafting. We’ll be using vigorously trailing, prostrate rosemaries to cover an unfortunate rock wall, notably Benenden Blue, Huntington Carpet, Santa Barbara, Irene, and tender but tasty Corsican.

Must Have Mints

Mints definitely get a bad rap and it’s true that they can race around a garden, but they’re also useful, beautiful, and delicious. Ask a bee or pretty much any pollinator about mint and you’ll get enthusiastic approval. My new garden was initially infested with a gang of thugs, from implacable bishop’s weed to bindweed to sweet woodruff and mint. Relentless weeding has the first two under control (I think), and I’ve chosen to let sweet woodruff run in a shady area. The mints turned out to be delicious so I’m using them to fill several hard-to-reach spots. They also make terrific little shovels, breaking up hardpan by delving deep, so my heritage mints are also hard at work in a couple of extremely compacted places where I’ll eventually grow raspberries and blueberries. We’ll definitely plant mints in large containers for the cafe garden: For herb teas and cookery, Butter mint has a soft, lush spearmint flavor, while Chocolate combines a peppermint bite with velvety milk chocolate. Julep and Kentucky Colonel are classic tea and cocktail mints, while spritely Swiss Ricola is used in the classic cough drops. US native Mentha spicata offers a smooth spearmint flavor, while brisk Orange Bergamot blends mint and citrus notes, perfect for iced or hot teas.

For herbal teas, German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is an essential master ingredient, the perfect blender with almost everything. Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) is another; this pretty US native with gently fragrant flowers and foliage likes moist meadows but makes itself at home in gardens too. Thyme is another necessary ingredient in teas, herb salts and butter blends, potions and lotions. I chose aromatic French Summer and Lemon Variegated, both wonderful in savory dishes, and English thyme for teas and salad dressings, as well as Red Creeping for covering that pesky wall. Sages like Berggarten and Holt’s Mammoth add brisk notes while Pineapple and Honeydew Melon sages offer sweet flavors and scents.

Living The Dream

Though work is barely starting on the garden, I can already dream into it, so much so that I’m sometimes surprised when I see only soil and rocks on the site. In my mind’s eye, I’m smelling the roses and honeysuckles, seeing washes of color from calendulas and salvias, watching happy bees browse on borage and lemon balm, lemon verbena and oregano, sage and santolina. It’s important to keep our dreams alive, especially when it’s impossible not to feel dread and so much grief because our nightmares are coming to life as well. When we feel depleted and distressed, we need to nurture and revel in every source of renewal and resilience we can find, for ourselves and others. So let’s sit down for a minute and fully relax. Join me in a cup of tea and dream with me of roses and hummingbirds, of bees and blossoms and bright warm days. Onward, right? Because the only way through is through.


Posted in Cooking Schools, Edible Flowers, Garden Design, Health & Wellbeing, Native Plants, Pollination Gardens, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Queer Plants, Odd People

Nature Loves Weird Plants & So Do We

Over the years, I’ve written hundreds-ok, thousands-of articles about gardening. Judging by reader responses, it’s pretty clear that for gardeners, what’s news is what’s new and different. However, results may vary: when I was first getting truly obsessive about plants, I happily fell in with a fervent band of collectors who lusted after the old, the heritage and antique forms of certain plants. Elizabethan hose-in-hose primulas, archetypal back-bred daffodils, heirloom apples, all were prized as much as the newest hosta or heuchera. This often led to the species stage, where instead of hybrids, one develops a deep need for every possible parent species of the chosen obsession, which often means growing from seed, which may or may not be available commercially, which leads to making swapping relationships with other mad collectors.

Clearly, the oddity factor is enormously appealing for collectors of all kinds, from plants to model trains to stamps to tea pots. For many gardeners, collector-itis starts with the gotta-have-them-all phase in which we seek out every mainstream-available type of whatever it is we are fixed upon. However, if we truly get hooked, we then start seeking out the oddities; rare and unusual forms, colors, textures, sizes. It’s only recently occurred to me that the gardening community’s delight in diversity isn’t mirrored in many other places these days. It seems that, just as we gardeners love and determinedly collect weird plants, we also, generally speaking, are able to appreciate non-normative people more than the culture as a whole. Could this acceptance be in part based on the fact that many of us are at least a bit non-normative ourselves? Asking for a friend…

Perfect Doesn’t Exist

Like many people, I needed some nudging to develop acceptance of some forms of plant diversity. I admit that I still think some yellow foliage looks chlorotic and find certain wilder types of variegation unappealing, especially the less symmetrical. Growing up in a very traditional New England town and having been deeply influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins’s views about the nature of beauty, I found symmetry soothing, and had to work at broadening my assumptions to include asymmetry and variegation. With enthusiastic teachers ardently pointing out the desirability of variety and variation, eventually I could open my mind to many fresh viewpoints.

As the mother of a brilliant neuro-diverse kid who is now a transgender woman, I’ve had to stretch open my mind a whole lot more over the years. Today, I’m grateful for each of the nudges (not to say shoves) that were required, and my own slow opening makes me more patient with folks who have a hard time accepting diversity in their family or community. Sometimes, especially lately, I catch myself wondering why it’s so hard for some people to be open minded (not to say kind), and I need to remember my own faltering early progress. A friend used to say, “Progress, not perfection,” and now I really know why. Indeed, one big nudge came for me when I was in nursing school, doing an OB/GYN rotation. One of the delivery docs was explaining why a newborn had tiny gills under his ears and how they would close up undetectably before very long. Faced with a zillion shocked questions from a gaggle of nursing students, he said, “In all my years of delivering babies, I’ve never yet seen one that was 100% “perfect”. Everyone has something a little bit different about them, and even people who appear totally symmetrical aren’t.”

The Spaciousness Of The Queer

Frantic variegation aside (it still makes me nervous), I’ve come to truly treasure the gardening community’s acceptance of and appreciation for the unusual, which has been a huge help for my own development. I’ve been working with several groups that are trying to expand acceptance of diversity and understanding about what inclusion might look like, and it strikes me that there is so much more spaciousness in the queer community than the “normal” culture can offer. Where mainstream culture has very rigid rules about how people are supposed to look, talk, and act, especially in gender-assigned roles, queer culture is actively opening to an ever-broader set of possibilities.

We are really seeing that stretch in the number of people who are reaching past binary definitions of any kind. Even a few years ago, very few people who transitioned into transgender status de-transitioned. The road to transition was so rocky and painful that nobody got there on a whim and only a tiny percentage ever changed their decisions. That road is still rocky today, despite many helpful changes in best practices that smooth out the process a little, but an increasing number of people are recognizing themselves as simply transgender, rather than being a trans woman or man. Now that more possibilities are being acknowledged, called out by exploratory pioneers, more people, young and older, are moving happily into a status such as gender fluid, gender flexible, or gender expansive. On beyond the binary, turns out there’s a whole universe of options to explore. Onward!



Posted in Plant Diversity, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

So Many Plants, So Little Time

When Excess Is Not Our Friend

Hoarding. It’s on my mind because I’ve been helping to empty the jam-packed apartment and garage of a friend who has had a series of strokes and is now confined to a hospital bed, unable to move on her own. I can only imagine how it must feel to have that last stroke and boom! You lose half your body, your autonomy, your agency, your home, your bed, your garden. She has no family, so her friends are helping with the excavation of her stuff. I use the term advisedly, as she is an incredibly neat and tidy hoarder. Open any door in her place and the closet or cupboard will be so full you can’t insert a piece of paper. Start unpacking and you begin to wonder if there’s an extra dimension to the closet, but instead of Narnia, you’ll find the Interstellar Collection Of Old Toothbrushes. Far more comes out of each space than any neuro-typical person could even imagine would fit in it.

My friend was an artist and crafter and her collections are numerous and impressive. There are dozens of little birds of ceramic or wood, dozens of piggy banks, dozens of beautiful pieces of driftwood. Hundreds of shells. Bins of barnacles. Drawers and boxes packed with interesting stones or beach glass or colored sheet glass or broken pottery. We are passing what we can along to local artists, people who do mosaic or work in assemblage or collage or glass art or natural materials. But a heartbreaking amount of her stuff isn’t of any use to anyone. Natural materials-thousands of sticks and rocks an shells-are getting recycled or tucked back into woods or taken back to the beach. But then there’s the garden.

Every Little Thing

Now, I admit, I am something of a plant hoarder myself, if less now than in my prime. When I first started gardening, about fifty years ago (!), I was pretty undiscriminating. Basically, I wanted to grow anything and everything I came across, just to learn more about plants of all kinds. At first, I ordered from Gurney’s Nursery catalogs, which included all kinds of weird things; their ads were like those on the back of comic books, where you could buy Amazing Sea Monkeys and X-Ray Glasses that let you spy on the neighbors in the shower (eeeuuuu). I was fascinated with the idea of buying a vegetable garden by the yard, so I bought coir mats with seeds inside and long tapes with vegetable seeds neatly spaced. You just planted the tape or the mat and shazam! Instant garden!! Of course I tried them all, and of course they didn’t work, but I thought it was probably my fault. Decades later, I learned that many seed companies were banking on that must-be-me syndrome and routinely sold dubious-quality seeds to backyard gardeners that commercial growers wouldn’t have put up with for a minute.

When I ordered ten trees for two dollars and got an envelope with ten thready little twigs I assumed that was the way mail order nurseries worked and planted the poor pathetic things. The miracle was that now and then, something actually lived, which of course fed my acquisitive habit. By the time I got to college I was growing houseplants, mostly from cuttings and starts donated by friends. My dorm room windowsill was packed with plants, as were the windowsills of every apartment afterward. I made curtains of Jasmine and sweet peas, training them up wires on eye-hooks (never, of course, worrying about what was happening to the woodwork). I grew cactus from seed (and actually got quite a variety!) and ferns from spores (wet bricks worked a treat). I filled the fire escape and was delighted when seedlings appeared on the ground far below. I treasured each and every seedling and compulsively potted up everything that came my way.

A Bit Of Land And No Sense

When I finally got my first actual garden, my acquisitiveness knew no bounds. I had more income then, and had discovered real nurseries, with amazingly cool plants that didn’t have to be coaxed to survive (that came later). I discovered the seed lists of various plant societies and started ordering everything that sounded intriguing, spending hours snuggled up with huge, bulky reference books looking up everything unfamiliar (pre-internet, that was a lot more work). By then, the perennial boom was starting up and I met serious hortheads who were collectors. Real collectors, with passions broad and narrow. Some had every historic florist’s primula in existence, some had the only this or that in North America, some had the most daylilies (as in several thousand), some had the blackest iris, the most intricately patterned snowdrops, the rarest species peonies, the hottest new something (at that time, you could trade a single corm of Crocosmia Lucifer for anything your heart lusted after. True story!).

By then, I was starting to write about plants and get paid, so I could write off my plant expenses. That opened the floodgates and whatever tiny remnant of restraint I had left was swept away. Of course I needed every new Heuchera! Naturally I had to grow every minor bulb commercially available. Why would I NOT buy anything at all that might increase my knowledge and my garden? Well, hmm. The garden, sadly, wasn’t quite as large as my appetite for plants. I also had two home schooling kids and a busy writing and speaking career to manage. No worries! Just pot up those new plants and they could get shoehorned in at the right time, which somehow never came. My pot ghetto grew to cover a truly impressive amount of land, and got harder to maintain well. That didn’t mean I stopped buying things, of course, but it did mean that sometimes when I bore home a rare plant in high glee I would be dismayed to discover that I already had one in a pot and it wasn’t exactly thriving. Oh.

You Can’t Take It With You

Those days are long gone, but mostly because I now live in a very small home with a tiny yard. Yes, there are still quite a few pots, but no more sad strays or dying swans. My friend’s garden was as crammed as her apartment, and most of the plants had seen better days, but I have no judgement in my heart for her. I’ve been re-homing whatever I could, passing on plants and pots and garden art through our local Buy Nothing group. After several dozen people have been by to pick and choose, there are still around fifty pots, dozens of mossy rocks, zillions of cool sticks and shells.

Dismantling her collection reminded me of leaving so many of my own gardens over the years, letting go of plants, pots, and people along the way. I’ve been tipping the soil out of her remaining pots and smoothing it into beds that will probably be swallowed by moss and forest before too long. The last pots will get recycled at Lowe’s (the garden center ones have a bring-and-take bin), and the last of her beloved plants are ending up in the green waste bin, bound for that big compost heap in the sky. A week ago, my friend was sad to leave so much behind, but this week, things have changed. She had a waking dream yesterday in which a single red rose sprouted from her chest, its thick, thorny stem climbing up to the sun. The rose opened and a puff of wind blew the petals away.

Posted in Health & Wellbeing, Hoarding, Moss, Recycling Nursery Plastics, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , | 7 Comments