Wednesday, July 7, 2021

I planted a cutting garden just before the pandemic started - luck, not foresight.  I was tired of paying through the nose for worn tired flowers at Trader Joe's and the local grocery store, tired of 4 a.m. trips to the flower market and feeling under water all day from the too early rise.  So I went to Sloat, and to Orchard, got a bunch of 4 inch pots and stuck them among the artichokes and asparagus.  Next to the fava beans.  

Some thrived, some died.  Some were no good as cut flowers so I dug them up and gave them away.  

But I've had a house full of flowers all year, and armfuls to give away to friends.  The best part of having a cutting garden is sharing with friends.  The second best part is cool early mornings wandering around the garden with a cup of tea and some shears - Felco please - and saying good morning to beautiful things.

This morning there were flat heads of pale peach yarrow, long cones of white butterfly bush (buddleia to the horticulturists), and, as I was nearing the top of the loooooong stairway to the garden, some bright white hydrangeas.  After I caught my breath, I laid them all out on the table.

I love arranging outside - you can drop stem stubs on the floor, or sweep the table clean with one hand and walk away.  When the detritus has wilted, I sweep it into the garden beds for mulch.  Yes, with a broom. 

Tall flowers need a tall vase. This jar usually sits on a table by the couch where we watch TV.  I'm trying to use things I own and never think of for flowers, using things I already have not just for display (and dusting).  I left the lid in the house - I'm on a breaking things binge, humbling for someone who prides herself on Never Breaking Things.  Humility is a tough taskmaster.

Stems need to be stripped or the leaves will foul the water.  This is Yarrow - before and after.

Re-cut the stems and dip for one second into Quick Dip

Hydrangeas get the same leaf stripping 

but get a dip in something else: Alum.  I got mine at Shibata; you can get yours at the local pharmacy.

I started with the yarrow around the rim.  Then the hydrangeas.  Crossing the stems to form support for the eventual tall flowers.

Be sure to turn your arrangement as you work.  Some people use a cake frosting turntable.  I don't want more gear, I want more simple.  I use my arms. And as my sister Carol reminds me, "Weight bearing exercises are good for older women."  When did I become one of those?

It looks ratty at first.  Trust yourself, don't take stems out and fuss.  Just keep going.  It will work.  You will know what to do to make it come together.  No Fussing!

Last thing to go in - the tall white buddleia.  It seems this curved stem should drape out of the vase - don't do it.  Make some of the stems face in.  Like this one.  Much more interesting.  Less FTD.  


I decided not to use these extra large extra tall blooms.  They were too big.  I made another arrangement in a mason jar for a friend.  


Be sure to let your flowers rest in a cool dark place for a few hours before you set them out in the house - they will last lots longer. 

And while I was in the garden I noticed the garlic tops were completely dry. I'd tucked garlic in next to the Shasta daisies, beside the tomatoes, around the dahlias.  So I dug them up.

I'm thinking garlic and cream sauce for pasta - if it turns out I'll share a recipe.  No, I don't have one.  I'm gonna wing it.  Cream, butter, black pepper ... maybe a squeeze of lemon at the end? and pasta from Community Grains.  The Best.  I'll never eat regular pasta again.  Thank you Bob Klein  

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Happier Dahlias

I have grown dahlias - not very well - for years.  Inspired by a huge bouquet in my friend Ellen's kitchen, I was thrilled when she told me how easy they are to grow...ha. For her.  She has deep rich soil and endless patience.

My first attempts came roaring up and keeled over, the stems covered with buds broken off.  I felt reproached. And responsible.  So I staked... and  I got a few flowers.  

Ellen told me her dahlias get bigger every year.  I left them in the ground over the winter, looking forward to armfuls of flowers the next year.   Bad idea number two.  We don't freeze, but we have sticky clay soil, and the next spring there was not one dahlia left.  Well, one - the indefatigable Thomas Edison, photos in prior posts.  He is the one thing that kept me from giving up, and every time I see those purple flowers waving above the foliage I feel better.  About everything.

The next year I tried digging them all up in winter ...they were already mush. 
I cried.  Note to self: dig before the rains come.

The following year I dug them in fall, before the rains came.  Laid them carefully wrapped in newspapers in wooden crates in the garage...
Better.  But lots died in storage, and lots didn't sprout in spring. 

I have tried staking.  I have pinched - apparently not enough, for the few dahlias I haven't managed to kill (Thomas and one other nameless hot pink) are taller than I can reach.  And I'm tall.  

So when my friend Meher and I had the chance to visit The Happy Dahlia Farm in Petaluma I was - you guessed it - happy.

It's called the Happy Dahlia Farm for good reason.  Long rows of gorgeousness in a rainbow of shapes and colors greets you. I was stunned.   

There are so many shapes!   Cactus, pompon, dinnerplate.  Waterlily, orchid, peony.  The smaller the flower the more the plant produces.   I confess a soft spot for dinnerplates, but the 4 to 6 inch look best in a vase.  And play well with others. And don't break the stems with the weight of their heads.  

I fell in love with this creamy blowsy dahlia, only to learn she is one of the most difficult.  Figures.  I may still try, but I won't get my hopes up.

At the Happy Dahlia Farm they plant their dahlias 12 inches apart in the row, in double rows with the rows 14 inches apart.  They are supported by each other, and by wires about 2 feet off the ground.  None of the ugly staking I've been living with.  And they have left comfortable aisles between the double rows.  For walking, for cutting.  For dead heading.  For admiring.  For daydreaming.

Half open...

Or in full glory. Every time I turned there was another stunner.  I fell in love with this combination of colors.  I'd like to upholster a couch in these colors.  Or maybe paint a tiny bathroom. So happy.

You can bring a basket and have a social distance picnic.  You can stay as long as you'd like.  You can buy plants and cut flowers.  They sell a few tubers, but plants are a surer thing.  They have a newsletter with advice and events.  They are happy people, these dahlia lovers, and will answer endless questions.   

You cannot, however. cut your own.  It looks perfect because people who know what they're doing tend the dahlias.  If they turned us loose - I shudder to think.  

 You can, however, take all the photos you want, and come home with dreams and aspirations.  Thanks to all their wise advice, humor and kindness I know what I've done wrong, what to let go because gardening is never perfect and nature bats last.  And what to try next year.  Can't wait.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Before The Smoke

Before the 110 degree heat, before the choking smoke, before the fires that are devouring people's lives, I had a cutting garden full of lovely things.  

Okay, some were not so lovely any more.  But they were loved.  And it's a cutting garden. so it doesn't have to look good.  At least not all the time.  And yes those are onions and yes I cut them.

I would go down in the mornings with a cup of tea and a big basket, and cut until the basket was overflowing.  I'm sure when I clean up the garden in late fall I'll find a forgotten teacup or six.  Gardening is filled with happy surprises.    

In this basket - a tall white butterfly bush, new this year.  A two foot campanula primulafolia. I have carried seedlings and little jars of seed from garden to garden.  It seeds all over.  I love it.

Some David Austin roses, hopeless as cut flowers but so graceful and fragrant.  A long sprig of duck foot ivy.  An intensely blue bush clematis.  The raw material.

I make arrangements on the outdoor table, the leftover bits swept onto the patio and then into a nearby bed.  This vase has a pink scabiosa that grew to six feet before it keeled over and went to seed.  Note to self: stronger stakes next year.  It is, however, seeding all over the potato patch.  Sometimes good things come from what looks like disaster.

Back to the flowers: I think the rose is The Dark Lady from David Austin, but the tag is long gone.  I know I also planted Prospero, and it's also a David Austin and a major shedder on day two in the house.  I don't care, I love the graceful way they droop, and I leave the fallen petals.

Some plain blue buddleia that volunteered and is reseeding all over the place.  The hummingbirds love it.  That intense blue bush clematis.  Some unopened rose buds - it's a cutting garden and I cut buds knowing they will never open.  I love the way they feel in an arrangement, that not all the flowers are the same age.  Some still in bud, some drooping and shedding. 

I had a few leftover bits I could not bring myself to sweep off the table.   A Brandy rose, a deep pink rose, alas also tag-less.  One leftover spray of that dark David Austin, a bit of peach yarrow that lasts forever, and a scabiosa seed pod.  And yes that blue clematis with the teensy intense flowers.  Just a few flowers by the kitchen window.  That seems to be where I'm spending a lot of time.

The first dahlia to bloom is always Thomas Edison.  He's also the last to quit.  I quite like him with the peachy Pat Austin rose.  And the shed petal.  The tomatoes?  The jury is still out.  

One of the joys of having a cutting garden  (besides the miracle that things are actually growing) is not cutting something if I'm not in the mood for that flower.  In my regular garden things get dead headed.  They rarely get cut, cutting leaves holes.  In the cutting garden I have been cutting with abandon, and I'm letting things go to seed.  Next year I'm hoping for happy surprises.  

Hot pink hollyhocks have reseeded everywhere.  For the first few years I harvested seed and coaxed it along.  Now? I throw the spent stalks where I want hollyhocks and dig out the extras.

This year I got a whole crop of weird looking pointy purple and green tomatoes I didn't plant.  And a huge crop of potatoes in the flower bed above the pool, growing happily under that hot pink holly hock.  Surprisingly pretty foliage, and not bad as a cut flower.  Weird fact: the flowers tell you what color the potatoes are.  White flowers for white, pink for red and lavender for blue.

  Next year: Daisies invading the dahlias? Masses of sweet peas?  I can dream.  Sweet peas are not especially happy with me, and the birds love to pull them up, but I did have one pale pink sweet pea volunteer in the gravel and flower away.  It set seed.  I am hoping for great things.

There will be sheets of low blue forget-me-nots in spring, and hellebores volunteering between the stone steps.  I'm tossing out handfuls of nigella and poppy seeds and hoping they will be happy.  

I know I'm lucky my garden is only smoky, so many have lost everything.  I'm hoping some day the fires will stop.  And I am grateful for all the things that grow.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

A Cutting Garden To Save My Sanity

 Before the pandemic, before the lockdown, inspired by my friend Jane and her fabulous cutting garden in East Hampton, I planted a modest cutting garden. At the very bottom of our garden, where there used to be a lawn.  With inadequate drip irrigation...there was a lot of cursing and hand watering at first.  

Some things from seed, most from 4 inch pots.

Some left over from last year (the Thomas Edison dahlias), some gifted by friends.

Tall blue salvia uliginosa, light and airy Nepeta six hills giant, a stiff mystery plant from Portugal with hairy lavender flowers, beginning to go to seed.

Fragrant blue sweet peas planted last fall climbed to the top of their trellis and spilled over.  I've been cutting long branches to try to get them back under control.  They have territorial ambitions.

Huge heads of mid pink scabiosa.  I should have cut this back by half when it was only two feet tall.  It's now over six feet and a constant battle to keep it upright.  And to keep it from going to seed.  

I'm not a fan of daisies but these Shasta daisies may change my mind...they don't need staking and they are cheerful.  Even when I am emphatically not.

And the fabulous Thomas Edison dahlias.  Planted in gopher cages, left to winter over in our sticky clay. They are the only dahlias to return year after year.  

Laid out on the outdoor dining table, ready to arrange.  I start with the filler, the smaller plants that will spill over the vase.  Their stems hold the flowers I want more upright... the pincushion flower (scabiosa is such an ugly word, sounds like a skin disease) and the daisies.  And that lovely blue salvia.

There were enough flowers for two arrangements. Well, almost.  Another trip down the long staircase to cut more sweet peas. 
Dahlias and other large flowers go in last, then into a dark cool room for a few hours.  Then in places where I can see them - rooms where I spend time, pass by often. Maybe something small in the bedroom, but I want to see them, to enjoy them.

So what have I learned?

First, the descriptions on the plants in the nursery (fabulous cut flower! Trouble free! Blooms all summer!) are often written by someone who either has never grown a thing, doesn't own a pair of shears, has never had a flower arrangement last for more than one day, or is on drugs.  Or is paid to exaggerate.  

Those plants that emphatically do not make good cut flowers? Dug up and given away.  So the second lesson?  Be ruthless.

Next: If you're growing it from seed it will likely set seed and expire - here, as the summer heats up.  In your garden, perhaps as fall approaches.  But in the heat of our long summers so many beautiful things - huge blue scabiosa from Annie's Annuals, fragrant sweet peas in rich burgundy, mallows and hollyhocks - all gone to seed.  And yes, I was diligent about dead heading.  It's been over a hundred here for more than a week.  If I could go to seed I would...

Shasta daisies are on hiatus.  Cosmos have mildewed and quit.  Coreopsis soldiers on, but I am not in the mood for school bus yellow flowers.  Not in the heat; not after months of them.

Roses are still going but they do not last nearly as long in a vase as the dahlias.  

Salvias shed.  Inside, it looks like an invasion of blue bugs under the arrangement.  I sweep the spent flowers into the sink a few times a day, and keep food out of their range.  Blue flowers and breadcrumbs? No.

I've learned a lot about cutting and conditioning too.

Leaves get stripped, especially those below the water line.   Stems re-cut and quickly dipped in Quick Dip,  a flower conditioner, then into warm water and placed in a cool dark spot for conditioning.  The laundry room if the dryer isn't going.  The guest closet. A dark bathroom. The wine cellar if my husband isn't looking.

What do you grow for cutting? What's blooming in your garden?  What makes you happy?

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Butterfield Biking

Aboard the luxurious SS Catherine.  On the Butterfield and Robinson Rhone River Bike Trip.  The usual cliches apply: unpack once, the scenery outside your window changes every day.  And we have a butler who makes laundry disappear and reappear clean and folded.
It's not too bad living in a cliche. 

We finally get on our bikes - I have an e bike, Wally a racing bike.  At the first hill I turn up the juice and, pedaling ever so easily, I sail past.  At the top of the hill Wally knows how I've felt for years.  The next day he is on an e bike.

We bike down a long allee of Plane trees... a courtyard lunch at an old chateau.  Under more Plane trees.

Fully half the group of avid cyclists are on e bikes.  No shame here.  I am used to a fancy Italian racing bike, not new but light and frisky.  This e bike is like riding a draft horse with a bad attitude - on ice.  It's a fight to keep it upright, it has . a mind of its own and considers my attempts to steer merely a suggestion. 

Lovely countryside:

And we have tablets!  Samsung galaxy tablets that have a lovely map with a blue dot (you are here) and a blue line to follow...and a red line to show you where you've been or when you go off piste.  Which, despite the tablets, we manage to do.

And they talk to you! Tell you where to turn...I miss seeing the clusters of B & R travelers at the confusing intersections, waving their route notes and peering at road signs.  It was a comfort to come upon them, to know you were in the right place and not the only one who was confused.  

But today we learn the tablets' limitations:  on the way home after lunch they - and we - are in full sun.  We fare better than they do; they just quit.  We wish we could quit too...we make it back to the boat, tired but happy.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Still thinking about Corsica...

It took five minutes in Avignon at the Hotel D’Europe to realize the thing that made Corsica so different, so special.  So relaxing, so calm.  Besides the fabulous weather and the multitudinous beaches…

No Brits. No Americans. 

And it took five minutes in the car back to the Ajaccio airport for our driver Philipe to spill the beans about why he didn’t meet us on our arrival in Corsica.  He had called us while we were in our taxi (we snagged the last one at the airport taxi stand, after the last flight of the day) to berate us for being early and not waiting for him, talking over me as I tried to explain that we had waited for half an hour - “But you were early!  How could I know?” Ummm internet?  Cel phone? 

“But I will meet you at Hotel Miramar for your return!  At twelve and a half!”

Twelve and a half indeed.

So! five minutes onto our ride back to the airport, the very ride that started promptly at twelve and a half, Philipe confesses that there were in fact two flights that arrived that fateful day in Ajaccio at the same time from Paris, and he was waiting patiently with a big smile and a  sign with our names - at the wrong flight.

Wild,  Remote.  Self contained.  Self assured.  Content.

Bonifacio. Sartène.  Propriano.  Weathered cliffs of white chalk.  Houses glued to the very edges of the cliffs.  They hang like perched vultures over the sea.  Nothing below. A white wild Petra.

We eat on a tiny balcony in a restaurant where if you drop your fork it will spear a seagull on the way down to a watery end.  We wake with the sun and linger over espresso on our deck overlooking the sea.  

We wander twisting streets and get lost - and found - a dozen times in a day.  We find, on the way down from yet another church that gives me the creeps, a cabinet with a glass front and dozens of juicy chickens browning inside.  We return at lunch time to an empty cabinet, to  locals leaving with bagged chickens, to two tiny tables facing the street, one staked out by a local man and his daughter - they are both on the curb smoking -  and the most delicious smells.  We have no idea what the menu says, the owner asks us what part of the chicken we want by waving his hands over those parts of his body.  I get a whole breast with wing attached and a steaming heap of tiny potatoes glistening with chicken fat.  Wally gets breast leg and thigh with the same meltingly tender potatoes.  We think we can't possibly eat it all - we are so wrong,

We ask for beer - apparently a universal word.  He shakes his head, goes out the door, and returns with the owner of the bar next door.  We pantomime - he returns with two bottles beaded with cold and perfect with the chicken.  

The unexpected, the confusing, the difficult, the spontaneous, the things beyond your comfort zone - they are the best memories.


It was, for about a hundred years, the city of popes.  
When there were multiple popes.  The protestants may be dour,  the Catholics are never boring.  The famous bridge of song - 
 Where would the tour guides take you if there were no partially fallen bridge?   And sometimes the most intriguing photos are accidental... 
We know about Nespresso for breakfast - 

 But we didn't know it was for the shower too.  This is a bit confusing...
 When you're jet lagged and you see this in the shower you want to open your mouth and tip your head back.  
Check out the flavors - bad idea.  Fortunately, thankfully, we have yet to encounter a hotel room without a Nespresso machine.

The fountains:

The markets.  Open air, of course.

I want to sit down on the sidewalk and pour olive oil over the garlic - and eat it.  I settle for a box of strawberries and some crunchy unripe apricots.  

The spices - the hats.  

 There is a provençal version of paella..  Ish. I'm pretty sure the Spanish don't use bean sprouts. 
And the most delicious roast chickens.  I wonder - if I lived here would I ever cook?  Or just eat fresh from the market?
When we finally climb aboard our very luxurious ship, the S.S. Catherine, we are greeted by a terrifying chandelier.  I was looking for a new one for the kitchen - not this one.    It would give me nightmares.  

Sweet Dreams.