Murder & Mystery In The Garden

Victorian Pesticides & Homicides

This week I’m speaking at the Bainbridge Island Historical Society about the intriguing relationship between Victorian pest controls and the rise of the murder mystery as a popular form of fiction. It’s pretty fascinating, since Victorian gardeners struggled with many garden pests, just as we do today, and their pest controls were direct and simple. During the mid- to late Victorian period, a boatload of toxins were developed, giving them an almost incredible arsenal of deadly poisons to play with. Indeed, the lethal ingredients found in typical garden sheds inspired several generations of murderers as well as mystery writers.

Murders made headlines then as now, and sensational cases were followed by people of every class, from the kitchen to the drawing room. Mid-century pharmacies sold all sorts of toxins in glass bottles marked “poison” with no other identification, making “mistakes” dead simple. Anyone could buy arsenic or strychnine for killing rats and mice, then absent mindedly use it to remove a nagging spouse or wealthy uncle. Anyone could buy half an ounce of pure, odorless, tasteless arsenic for a penny at any pharmacy, though after a while, purchasers had to sign a register.

The Lady Killer

Another common way to effect a quiet, often unsuspected exit for an inconvenient relative was to overdose them with laudanum. Tightly corseted women had a hard enough time just breathing and no one was surprised if ladies given to fainting fit simply didn’t come round at some point. An over the counter “herbal cure”, laudanum was frequently used for sleeplessness, nerves, or stress, and was particularly popular for controlling ladies of delicate sensibility. This deadly stuff found its way into many a nursery as well, since it was considered a sovereign remedy for fussy babies, especially teething tykes (and cocaine tooth-drops for children cost only 15 cents). Described as an herbal remedy, laudanum is made from poppies, and contains every form of opiate, from morphine to cocaine to heroin. It’s rather amazing to learn that laudanum is still legally prescribed in the US, sold as Opium Tincture USP.

The Victorians didn’t stop at poisoning pests and each other, they also poisoned themselves. Early Bayer ads touted both the brand new aspirin and pure heroin, promoted as ‘the sedative for coughs’ as in Smith’s Glyco-Heroine, the ideal cough syrup. In the US, cocaine was sold over the counter until 1914 and was commonly found in products like toothache drops, dandruff remedies and medicinal tonics. Coca wine combined wine with cocaine, producing a compound now known as cocaethylene, which, when ingested, is nearly as powerful a stimulant as cocaine. Mrs. Winslow’s soothing syrup, “the mother’s friend for teething children” contained morphine and Warner’s Safe Cure for liver and kidney complaints was largely high proof alcohol.

Rats, Mice, And Murder

Read any household encyclopedia from the 19th century – even up to the mid 20th century – and you will find all sorts of noxious chemicals recommended for household use. Rat poison was almost pure arsenic, which was also used to bleach skin to proper fairness (!!!) and make hair glossy. Heritage pesticides often included mercury, strychnine, nicotine, and copper and pretty much all of them were used as an exit strategy for people as well as pest critters. Plant poisons were also prevalent, and though today, they can be identified through an autopsy or blood work, back in the day, many were the “undetectable” toxins beloved of many a budding mystery writer.

The Victorian garden itself offered many an easy way to get rid of an excess of relatives, from foxgloves (source for digitalis) to tobacco. Tobacco extracts are extremely toxic and were used to kill all sorts of things, from hornworms to husbands. I was interested to learn that tobacco is making a comeback as a pesticide/fungicide since health issues have reduced the popularity of smoking. Even when the nicotine is extracted, tobacco bio-oil kills off a wide range of fungi, bacteria, and even the Colorado Potato Beetle, which is notoriously resistant to pesticides. Full circle!

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Amazing Annuals

Pow Plants For Right Now Beauty

We gardeners are among the luckiest people in the world. Not only is our habit—I mean hobby—healthful, there’s no end to its pleasures. Ok, yes, it IS an addictive love, but an addiction that results in beauty, happiness, patience, and a sense of kinship with the natural world is nothing to worry about. And instead of making us fatter, it makes us fitter, and keeps us fitter longer into maturity. What’s not to love?

Most if not all gardeners go through phases of falling for certain kinds of plants, often in an embarrassingly big way. I’ve had an iris phase, a daylily phase, a rose phase, a clematis phase, a minor bulbs phase, and a few years where all a plant had to be was perennial and I’d give it a try. Oh, and the plants-with-black-leaves phase, as well as the golden foliage phase (that one slowed way down when I realized the garden was starting to look chlorotic). Thanks in part to all these fascinations, my gardens have changed along with my tastes, my skills, and my design sense. Over the years, I’ve come to consider making gardens as every bit as much fun as having one, especially since I’ve learned how to help a new garden look more mature fairly quickly.

The Power Of Now

Though there was a period when artful gardeners looked down pretty severely on annuals, I’ve always had a soft spot for these bright and bouncy beauties. Back in the day, there wasn’t a huge choice; annuals often meant pansies and petunias, geraniums and gerberas, with a little ageratum and sweet alyssum thrown in. These days, choices of foliage and flower color, texture, shape and size abound. As always, annuals are quick to fill in and show their colors, making them top plants of choice for helping new beds look satisfyingly full and abundant right away.

Some of my favorites are annuals in cool climates but perennial elsewhere, which tends to give them a strength of line and form that fluffier annuals lack. Zonal and wax leaf geraniums are perfect examples; the racing stripes on the zonal foliage underscore the sturdy density and slightly fuzzy texture, while the waxy, glossy leaves of the ivy types offer as much structure and solidity as many a perennial. Interspecific hybrids cross the two, resulting in striking beauties such as the Caliente series, with big and generous blooms on trailing plants that pack a basket with pizazz and make traffic stopping edgers on a sloped bed.

A Flurry Of Foliage

Foliage annuals have turned into true border beauties, thanks both to ardent plant hunters and skillful breeders who cleverly capitalize on natural attributes. Years ago, colorful coleus had marvelous foliage but would scorch brutally unless it was kept to shady spots. As it turned out, the plant hunters had been keeping an eye out for specifically shade tolerant plants back then, but plenty of coleus was actually quite sun tolerant. When gardeners asked for coleus that could take a sunny spot, all sorts of new beauties were brought into the breeders’ mix. Now we can paint with marvelous shades of coleus from the Stained Glassworks series, including my favorites, Copper and Eruption. Both are serious wow plants that look fantastic with pheasant tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana), Orange Rocket barberries, and Autumnale fuchsias, which I like to set free from their basket to pour down my sloping beds.

Sweet potato vine (Ipomoea) has morphed a lot lately as well, so we now can choose amongst forms with both beautiful morning glory blossoms and lobed or frilly foliage in shades of chartreuse and gold or grape, plum, and midnight. These have really enjoyed my deep berms of sandy loam, spilling in inky or sunny streams between the slowly maturing shrubs. So far, my ravenous hordes of deer have not touched them, though as we all know, that can change overnight. Black oxalis or Purple Shamrock has a daintier leaf of smoky midnight with little puffs of tiny white flowers for accents. This classic indoor plant enjoys a summer out of doors and spreads nicely in light shade but can go dormant in full sun or when temperatures rise. The little bulblets don’t usually die, so the plant surges back into beauty when conditions are kinder. It’s not fussy about soil type but hates wet feet.

Powerhouse Petunias

Petunias have come a long, long way since the days when they came in red, pink, or muted purple. I still remember being very excited about a dim, faded yellow petunia that represented a huge color breakthrough about, oh, let’s just say a few decades back. Now I’m crazy about velvety Black Magic petunias, especially partnered with Surfinia Heartbeat, whose gentle white petals are each marked with a baby-ribbon-pink heart (seriously adorable). The Crazytunias have boldly striped or parti-colored petals in vividly contrasting colors, like a floral mardi gras costume, while the Glow series do indeed have a gentle glow about their more muted shades. If you like things on the hotter side, the Hells Bells gals are brazen blazers in a sizzling range of fiery tints.

Petchoa SuperCal are a series of petunia/calibrachoa crosses that combine stunning colors with abundant and persistent bloom. These dazzlers partner the larger blossoms of petunias with the tough endurance of calibrachoas, and the smoky salmon-peach-coral-rose palette blends with almost anything. Calibrachoas are dauntless beauties that produce showers of small but exceptionally generous bloom all summer long. In the garden, they cover a 2-3 foot circle, fitting comfortably between young shrubs and youthful perennials. The Isabell series offers bright yellow, clean purple, soft rose, and vivid tangerine as well as my favorite terra cotta (if you think you detect a theme to my favorites you’re right). I’m also a sucker for the Calibrachoa Superbells series, especially the citrusy Lemon Slice, with white and lemon stripes that remind me of umbrellas at a French beachside cafe.

On And On And On

I could go on and on, in fact I see that I have, but my main point is that annuals have an important part to play in the garden. No longer just pot plugs or basket stuffers, today’s annuals are captivating creations that earn a showboat spot in bed or border. Perhaps best of all, in a weird way, is their very evanescence; like the old song says, how can I miss you if you won’t go away?

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A Safer Caesar

First Foods For Convalescents

Last week I dined with a friend at a favorite restaurant and we shared a Caesar salad. It looked a little limp and was certainly heavy on the dressing, but it tasted fine and the conversation was so good I really didn’t notice anything off. When I woke up abruptly at 3:00 am with the urge to purge, I assumed I had a stomach flu. However, later that morning when I checked in with my pal, it developed that he, too, was having a purge experience. Aha! Caesar dressing can be troublesome because of the eggs, which should be coddled gently but sometimes aren’t. The culprit could also be the lettuce, I suppose, but if so, I would expect the restaurant to have heard from a boatload of folks. They hadn’t, so I’m plumping for the Caesar, which I suspect had been prepped for lunch and not used up, as it had that I’ve-been-sitting-around-for-a-while quality to it.

Mr. P. recovered in a day or two but my body was quite unhappy for days. Indeed, it’s been over a week now and I’m just getting past the bananas and toast stage. Thanks goodness for apple cider vinegar, which, mixed with a little water, definitely helps get the internal garden back to its happy place. Today I had my very first actual meal, which made me a bit nervous, given the week in review.   When I thought about what to try, I remembered making soup for my dying mom. (Ok, I’m not dying any faster than anyone else, but I have to say it kinda felt like it a time or two. Purging is hard work!)

Pleasures That Remain

As my Mom sailed away down the misty river of forgetfulness, food remained one of her few active pleasures. For quite a while, her favorite meal involved microwaving frozen mac and cheese (the orange kind), which she finally admitted she preferred over my homemade Italian version. I can’t even consider that at this point, but Mom’s next favorite sounded better; chicken soup with homemade biscuits.

She never got over her amazement that I was capable of baking “real” biscuits, but in fact they are dead easy as long as you preheat the oven and don’t waste time getting them into the oven. Assemble your dining companions too, as hot biscuits taste best straight out of the oven. Have your accoutrements ready as well: Some of us content ourselves with butter and homemade raspberry jam, while others prefer extra sharp cheese with a little slice of ham and a dab of mustard.

Floating Cloud Biscuits

These delectable critters are light and crisp on the outside and tender and almost creamy on the inside. That little bit of cream of tartar boosts them extra high; it’s a fast-acting leavening agent that works during the mixing/kneading stage, making for very light, crisp biscuits. Don’t let them sit around, though; for perfection, they need to be baked off as soon as you get them on the baking sheet.

Fluffy Biscuits

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
4 ounces (1/2 cup) pasture butter
2/3 cup milk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Sift dry ingredients together, then put them in a food processor with the butter and blitz for a few seconds; mixture should be like coarse corn meal. Put in a bowl, add milk quickly and stir gently until a soft ball forms. Knead gently for a few seconds, then pat into a square 1/2 inch thick (about 10 x 10 inches). Cut into squares or diamonds and put on a baking sheet, well spaced apart. Bake until golden brown (12-14 minutes) and serve at once. Serves at least one.

Simple Chicken Soup

I dislike commercial broths and stocks, most of which taste rather nasty to me. Instead, I make quick broths, including all skins and trimmings from the vegetables as well as the chicken bits.  This gives a light, fresh quality to this quick yet satisfying soup. You can make this soup with deli rotisserie chicken or raw pieces; either way, include the bones and skin in the broth. Interestingly, chicken breast broth has a fullest, cleanest flavor than broth made with other parts or even the whole bird.

Convalescent Chicken Soup

1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary or thyme
1 organic lemon, juiced, rind grated
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 small carrots, peeled and chopped
1 organic skinless, boned chicken breast, chopped
1/4 cup stemmed Italian parsley
freshly ground pepper

Make broth by combining onions and garlic skins with carrot peelings, celery trimmings, and chicken bits. Add water to cover (at least 4 cups) and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, bring to a simmer over low heat and simmer until needed.

For the soup, heat oil with onion, garlic, 1/4 tsp salt, rosemary or thyme, and lemon zest over medium high heat until fragrant (1-2 minutes). Add celery, carrots and potato, cover pan and sweat vegetables for 10 minutes. Add chicken and 2 cups water, cover pan and simmer until chicken is opaque. Strain broth, add to soup and simmer over lowest heat for 30 minutes. Add lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste and serve, garnished with parsley. Serves 4.

Safer Caesar Dressing

It may be a while before I enjoy a Caesar salad again, and if I do, I’ll probably use this recipe. (I prefer this one for picnics, when temperature control is challenging.) When you buy Worcestershire sauce, always check the label; these days, most include high fructose con syrup, but you can usually still find the “original” type that doesn’t (to me it tastes quite different).

Eggless Caesar Salad

3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup fruity olive oil
1 organic lemon, juiced, rind grated
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce (without corn syrup)
3-4 canned anchovies, rinsed, drained and minced
1/3 cup coarsely grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
8 cups chopped Romaine lettuce
1 cup toasted garlic-bread croutons

Combine the garlic and the oil in a glass jar and refrigerate overnight or for at least an hour. Fish out the garlic and add the lemon juice, mayo, Worcestershire sauce and anchovies. Shake well to emulsify, then gently toss with lettuce and croutons. Serve immediately. Serves 4-6.

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Rocking A Party

Celebrating The Small

I recently attended a delightful party for a friend who was celebrating both her birthday and retirement from the workforce. For gifts, she requested that each person bring a special rock that she might incorporate into her garden. Her suggestion was eagerly taken up and her friends gifted her with an intriguing assortment of rocks, from a great, jagged gold-ore streaked lump to a surprising number of smaller stones shaped like hearts. I took her a tiny, wave-smoothed rock with a perfect hole seemingly drilled into it. It looked artificial but as I found it on a local beach, I can only assume it was the mysterious product of natural forces.

Her little garden was an enchanting miniature, a strip that wound from her back door round one side of her small cottage to the front. A mossy stone-edged path split the small space into two beds and a minute terrace was just big enough for a couple of deck chairs. Thanks to shared walls and fences, the space is very private and just big enough to fit her very favorite plants. She lives in a cluster of cottages that share a small green common space and a little club house, so parties can flow from the small house into the common areas. I’m fascinated by such convivial small places these days, as I’m hoping to sell my big house and find a little one with shared grounds where I can spend the next chapter of my life.

Big Garden, Little Hideaway

It does seem a bit ironic that I’ve spent the last few years creating a big handsome garden for my big handsome house. I made mounded beds of sandy loam topped with compost and top dressed with digested dairy manure. The excellent drainage has encouraged plants I’ve struggled to please in the past and the garden has filled in fast. After seeing that snug little cottage garden, mine now seems vast, yet it’s just a fraction of what I used to have. It’s far less work than the old mixed borders that were 200+ feet in length and anywhere from 10-30 feet deep. Those days are certainly gone and I don’t really miss them, perhaps because I have so many public gardens to play in.

However, just as emptying my house demands a mix of rigorous discipline and heart, scaling back a garden requires us to deeply consider which plants are most like friends. I never quite feel at home until favorite books are on the shelves, and my garden doesn’t feel like mine unless it holds cherished old favorites as well as the newest, hottest hybrids. I recently read an article that challenged the current fad for “home purity” that encourages us to divest of anything we have a sentimental attachment to. The author was speaking as the child of refugees who were forced to leave everything behind. For one thing, starting completely fresh can make us feel anchor-less and adrift. For another, she views the urge to divest our homes of everything with past associations as a consumer-culture phenomenon, based on the (probably unconscious) assumption that anything and everything can be replaced at need. Food for thought?

A Grown Up Birthday Cake

While you ponder, here’s a toothsome recipe to try. For the party potluck, I took along my tweaked version of a French birthday cake. It has a wonderful texture, thanks to coarsely ground almonds, and a sophisticated flavor, thanks to lemon zest and whole milk yogurt. It goes together very quickly and the only fussy parts are rubbing the fresh lemon zest into the sugar and slicing the cooled cake in half (use the longest bread knife you have) so you can fill it with your jam of choice. I prefer my own homemade raspberry jam, but red currant jam is also lovely.  In France the cake is often served with whipped cream but I like it plain and so did my fellow party goers, most of whom asked for the recipe. So here it is!

French Almond Yogurt Cake

1 cup organic all purpose flour (local tastes best)
2/3 cup coarsely ground raw almonds
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup cane sugar
zest of 2 lemons
1/2 cup plain whole milk yogurt
3 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup avocado or vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter a heavy 9 x 2 inch round cake pan and set it aside. In a small bowl, combine flour, ground almonds, baking powder and salt, set aside. In a large bowl, combine sugar and lemon zest, rubbing between your fingers until fragrant and well blended. Add the yogurt, eggs, and vanilla and blend well. Stir in dry ingredients, then gently fold in the oil with a rubber spatula (batter will be pretty thick). Scrape it into your buttered pan and tap the pan lightly. Bake at 350 F until set and golden-edged (35-40 minutes). Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, invert onto a flat plate then flip back onto the rack to cool completely. When cool, slice cake in half horizontally and spread middle with jam, lemon curd, or whatever you like. Serves at least one or up to a dozen.

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