Do you treat your Christmas Poinsettia as an annual, and throw it way when it finally loses all those beautiful bracts, or do you care for it, baby it, and suffer its dormancy in order to bring it back into glorious bloom next December?
Can you guess which approach I take with a Christmas poinsettia?
I’ll give you a hint. This is my second poinsettia, a gift from my husband. I left my first one in the car. Overnight. Temperatures down to 10 degrees.
Rosemary in Bloom
Mary Gardens do not bloom in December, but since the liturgical season of Advent is a time of waiting for the momentous birth of the Christ Child I cannot help but think about what a confusing time it must have been for Mary.
All mothers waiting for the arrival of their first child often feel confused because emotions can range from frightened to joyous. What will the birth be like? What will the baby be like? What will the woman be like once she is a mother?
I think about Mary on that long donkey ride to Bethlehem. Mothers are weary and expectant during that last month of pregnancy as the baby comes closer and closer to being a reality. The very young Mary must still have been trying to get her mind around the memory of the angel who told her she would carry this special child, and the visit to her cousin Elizabeth which was more confirmation that this child was going to be very special.
In ancient times the pagan goddesses all had flowers associated with their personalities. For example, the rose and the lily are connected with Venus, denoting her love and her purity. Mary is a unique figure to all Christians; it is no surprise that over the centuries such a figure would have many stories grow up around her. In an age when most of the population was illiterate, symbols were important to storytelling. In Mary’s story various plants became symbols of her character and the events in her life. Some people have taken those symbols to create a Mary Garden where they might meditate on her life.
Most paintings of the Annunciation, show an angel appearing with a white lily to tell Mary that she would bear a son who would ‘be the greatest and shall be called the son of the Highest.” The lily, white for purity with a golden heart, is the first symbol of Mary and is considered essential to any Mary Garden. The second symbol, the iris, is more important because of its sword-like foliage than its flower. When Mary and Joseph presented the new baby in the templeSimeon said, “This child is destined to be a sign which men will reject; and you too shall be pierced to the heart.” Confusion upon confusion – angels, shepherds, wise men and dire warnings, and she just a new mother with a baby.
Mary came to be called the Mystical Rose and so roses are also necessary in a Mary garden. Thornless roses symbolize Mary who herself was declared born without sin, and all the roses with thorns stand for the rest of humanity with all their faults and failings. Roses for Mary are either white for purity, or red for the passion.
Myth and legend grew up around Mary and many flowers were thought to refer to her domestic life. I can imagine women over the ages thinking of the ways they share Mary’s duties and chores. Mending is no longer a major chore, but Mary’s Candle is one name for the giant mullein (Verbascum), its tall yellow flower spike standing in for a candle that provided light for Mary while she mended the Christ Child’s clothing. Right by her side would have been her tools, Our Lady’s Thimble, otherwise known as the Bluebells of Scotland, and Our Lady’s Pincushion, the Scabiosa.
Many other flowers are connected with Mary from the common marigold which is Mary’s gold, only to be found in nature, the blue of forget-me-nots as clear as Mary’s eyes, and Our Lady’s Keys, the primrose. Some of these associations make more sense than others, but all are beautiful in a garden.
The first garden known to be dedicated to Mary was created by the Irish St. Fiacre in the 7th century. The first record of a Mary Garden was a 15th century listing of plants for the St. Mary’s garden written by the sacristan at the Norwich Priory in England.
The flowers in a Mary Garden are an aid to meditation. Spring brings us columbine for Mary’s shoes, and alchemilla for lady’s mantle for her cloak. Pulmonaria, and other plants with white mottled foliage have been called milkwort or Mary’s milkdrops. You can see that many flowers for a Mary Garden are humble cottage or wildflowers, as unassuming at Mary herself.
A Mary Garden could also include a ground cover like vinca (Virgin flower), foxglove or Our Lady’s Glove, pansies or Our Lady’s Delight, or lilies of the valley for the tears she shed after the crucifixion.
It is thought that the first Mary Garden in the United States was planted at St. Joseph’s Church in Woods Hole on Cape Cod in 1932. Full information about this garden, and MaryGardens in general can be found at the University of Dayton in Ohio,http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/resources/m_garden/marygardensmain.html.
Even if you don’t have an outdoor garden, you can have a Mary Garden. All it takes is an image of the Holy Mother, and potted plants like the prayer plant (Maranta leucoreura) whose foliage closes in the evening like praying hands, and rosemary. My own rosemary plant is producing tiny blue flowers right now, a reminder of the legend that on the flight to Egypt the Holy Family stopped so that Mary could wash the Christ Child’s clothes. She asked plants nearby if she could hang the wet clothes on them to dry but only the rosemary bush consented. To this day rosemary’s blue flowers are a reminder of Mary in her blue cloak.
When you need a respite from the happy holiday hullabaloo, take a few minutes to sit quietly with your plants, no matter which, and meditate on the joys of the season.
Don’t Forget: You can win a copy of Rochelle Greayer’s fabulous book Cultivating Garden Style, AND a copy of The Roses at the End of the Road by Yours Truly simply by leaving a comment here by midnight, December 13. I will randomly choose a winner of this Giveaway celebrating 7 years of blogging at commonweeder on Sunday, December 14. Thank you Timber Press.
Between the Rows November 30, 2014
My Lakota squash
Turkey, squash and pumpkin pie are the Thanksgiving triumvirate. And we will give thanks for all three, as well as the oyster stuffing, creamed onions and all the rest. A groaning board indeed to stand in for all the blessings the year has brought us.
Thanksgiving has been a tradition from our founding, but the harvest has been marked with festivities probably since the invention of agriculture. Squash was probably a part of our first thanksgiving meal because we know the Narragansett natives called this vegetable ‘askutasquash’ which means raw or uncooked. The Pilgrims shortened the name and before long were cooking and sweetening squash with maple syrup.
But what else do we know about squash?
We know squash and pumpkin belong to the same Cucurbita family.
We also know Cucurbita pepo is the family of what we call summer squash and it is probably the oldest squash family going back to 6000 BC. These squash originated in northern Mexico and in the warmer sections of North America. Cucurbita moschata developed later, around 3000 BC in Central and northern South America. These winter squash varieties spread throughout South America before Columbus landed. Their great benefit was that they could be stored for several months without rotting or losing flavor.
Cucurbita maxima includes pumpkins and originated in the valleys of the Andes mountains of northern Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. They remained very local and did not travel much beyond that area until the Spaniards arrived.
We know that New World plants including squash made their way to the Old World, where farmers and breeders multiplied the few varieties into many. Squash obviously did better in the warmer climates of Spain and Italy. We even know that squash was being eaten in Japan by 1600.
We know that Hubbard squash, butternut squash and pumpkins are among the very few varieties of squash to be found in the supermarket. If we go to the farmer’s market we may find a few other varieties that are less familiar. If you join the Seed Savers Exchange you can help preserve the many heirloom varieties of these common vegetables. I took a look into my Whole Seed Catalog from Baker Creek Heirloom seeds to get an idea of how many heirloom squash varieties there are. Listed are 30 varieties of summer squash and 96 varieties of winter squash and pumpkins.
We know squash are easy to grow. Some of these heirlooms would be fun to grow just because they are so beautiful or so weird looking. Iran (C. maxima) is billed as one of the most beautiful squash “with a unique foam green rind that is mottled in soft peachy orange.” The name Red Warty Thing gives you a good idea of the squash’s appearance. For myself I harvested Lakota squash this year, a variety grown by the Lakota Sioux.
One old variety, the Boston Marrow, has a local history. In 1831 (or thereabouts) Mr J. M. Ives of Salem got seeds from a friend in Northampton who got them from a friend in Buffalo “after a tribe of Native Americans traveled through the area distributing seed.” These big orange-red squashes were the most popular commercially grown squash in our region for 150 years. Currently, the Boston Marrow has a place in the Slow Foods ‘Ark of Taste’ for its superior flavor.
The big Hubbard squash originated in Chile or Argentina and came to North America via the West Indies. It is thought that Captain Knott Martin, a North American seaman who traveled those routes to South America and the Caribbean, brought seeds to Marblehead, Massachusetts. We know that James J.H. Gregory, farmer and seedsman, was selling those seeds in 1844. We have been eating squash in Massachusettss for a long time.
So we know a fair amount about squash, but do we know how strong it is?
1875 Squash in Cage at the University of Massachusetts
In 1875 William Smith Clark, President of Massachusetts Agricultural College, and a few of the faculty members wondered about this. They knew that tree roots could disrupt stone walkways. They also knew that even a bean seed had to “lift comparatively heavy masses of soil as it germinated.” But they did not know if anyone had ever tried to measure the expansive force of a growing plant. They determined to design their own experiment and President Clark wrote it up in the Annual Report for 1875.
They got seeds of the mammoth yellow Chili squash from J.H. Gregory in Marblehead and planted them in a specially prepared bed in Durfee Conservatory. The bed, 50 feet long, and four feet wide was filled to a depth of six inches with good soil and rich compost. The squash germinated and grew vigorously.
The Report states, “Never before has the development of a squash been observed more critically or by a greater number of people. Many thousands of men, women, and children from all classes of society, of various nationalities and from all quarters of the earth visited it.”
In addition to measuring the strength of the squash they measured the roots. The description of that process is long but they determined that after they counted every fine root there were about 15 miles of roots. They also estimated that they were growing at the rate of 1000 feet a day.
Then they devised a kind of metal basket or cage to hold the squash to which they arranged a fulcrum and lever that was changed regularly to hold increasing weights. The squash was planted on July 1 and on August 21 it lifted 60 pounds. On the 24th it lifted 162 pounds. By September 11 it lifted 1100 pounds and at the end of September it lifted 2015 pounds. The final measurement on October 31 was 5000 pounds! All supported by a squash that weighed 47 pounds.
I hope that this year you will all enjoy your Thanksgiving squash with a new appreciation for its vitality and strength.
Between the Rows November 22, 2014
The road to Thanksgiving
The road to Thanksgiving leads from our house to our daughter’s house. We were trying to beat the big snowstorm but we met it on the way. Fortunately, the snow did not get beyond pretty by the time we arrived.
The makings of Thanksgiving
Our assignment for the Family Feast was to bring a farm fresh turkey, cranberry sauce and cranberry bread and my famous Green Apple Mincemeat Pie. Still a lot to do before the rest of the family arrives tomorrow.
Happy Thanksgiving to all! Be well. Eat well.
Garlic Harvest 2014
This morning I dug up my 35 hard neck garlic bulbs. My garlic harvest is looking pretty good and I am looking forward to entering them in the Heath Fair next month. Garlic is a wonderful crop. So easy. You begin with good seed garlic which you can get from a friend as I did, or go to a garlic farm like Filaree where you will be amazed at how many kinds of garlic there are to sample and enjoy. You can also go to the Garlic and Arts Festival in Orange which is about all things garlic, including seed garlic – but so much more!
I plant my garlic in good rich soil in mid to late October. I put on a layer of hay or straw mulch and forget about them. In the spring garlic foliage will rise above the mulch and there is nothing to do until you see the twirly scapes appear. To make sure the bulbs as big as they can be, remove the scapes. Then let the bulbs continue to grow until the foliage begins to yellow in mid-July in our area. Then dig the garlic carefully, shake off the soil, then wash the garlic bulbs with a hose. Cut off the stalks and set them out to dry and cure. When dry cut off the roots. Do not take off all the protective skins. Of course you can use them any time after harvest. I have learned everything I know about garlic from Heath’s Garlic King, Rol Hesselbart, who I interviewed here. He gives the best instruction and advice!
Two garlic bulbs – why is there a difference?
Somehow I missed removing the scapes from two of the plants. See the difference? All the plants energy went into the bulb in the plant on the Left, but some energy went into the scape on the Right, making the useful bulb smaller.
Once you have had a successful garlic harvest you can save a few of your very best garlic bulbs to use as seed. That is what I have done and now when I see garlic in the store it seems very puny. But I rarely have to worry about that any more. If you are a cook you can save some money by growing your own. All my garlic grew in a double 8 foot row. Not much space at all.
So, Dear Friends and Gardeners, have you ever grown garlic? How did you fare?
The Heath Mowing
The noted essayist and poet Charles Lamb (1775-1834) said “New Year’s Day is everyman’s birthday.”
As I look at the snow covered mowing near the center of Heath, I cannot help thinking that the mowing is like the first day of the year. It is perfect and flawless as the new year begins. It seems filled with opportunity and the promise of a good harvest. There may be only sunny days and gentle rains. And yet we all know that wind and weather will also act on it over the year. Drought may dry the hay too soon, and rainstorms may turn it into swamp and rot the hay. Wind may blow down the circling trees. Pests and weeds may cause their own damage. But come the end of December, it is likely that the mowing will once again be perfectly and flawlessly covered with snow as a fresh year begins.
For many of us there are two New Year’s a year. The school schedule dies hard, and long after we have to go to school, or have children to send off to school there is something about the existence of the first day of school that allows us all a new beginning. We’ll do better, study more, be more disciplined, do our chores without complaining, and smile and look people in the eye when we meet. All behaviors we’ll be attempting most of our lives.
But on January 1 the whole world pauses and takes a step into a new year, with new hopes, new possibilities, new ideas, and renewed energy. I look at that field and I am looking into the future. I hope I have learned a few things as I have gone through life, but the view ahead always seems full of promise to me.
I have never been one for making great New Year’s Resolutions, except possibly swearing I really will get the garden under control this year. However, everyone will tell you I am a great believer in visualization. Simply by keeping the vision of some desired end in mind, I think you will go a long way to reaching that desired end. I don’t know how it works, but I think it does.
So, as I look ahead I see a garden that is different from this year’s garden. That is partly by plan, and partly caused by unforeseen opportunities, or the unpredictable vagaries of the weather. More unpredictable weather each year it seems. I don’t know that the garden will be any more under control, but I have a list of projects,: plants to be removed, plants to be added, trellises to be built, favorite vegetables to include, and new varieties to try. Those are not resolutions; those are plans capable of change at any moment.
The British author Neil Gaiman has written many award winning books for adults and teens. For Christmas I gave The Graveyard Book to a grandson, and I recently came across a new year’s wish of Gaiman’s, intended for us all. “My wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”
I think this is good advice for all of who will be called up to do new things in the new year. Of course, I have to remind myself to be patient with all those New Mistakes – mistakes that I make, and mistakes that those around me make.
I know I will mistakes in 2014, because I made mistakes in 2013. Most of them were not glorious, amazing mistakes. You can make mistakes in actions taken, but also in actions not taken.
So as I take a last fleeting look at 2013, I am grateful for the love of my family, for laughter shared with old friends. I am grateful that my back and knees are still willing to bend for digging and weeding. I am grateful to be a part of groups like the Friends of the Heath Library, the Shelburne Falls Area Women’s Club and the Bridge of Flowers committee because they give me the chance to make new friends, to learn, and to serve my community.
So now I will turn face forward and march confidently into 2014, into the new year, into new garden plans, and into preparations for unexpected pleasures and opportunities. I embrace the thought of the noted 20th century Broadway critic Brooks Atkinson who said “Drop the last year into the silent limbo of the past. Let it go, for it was imperfect, and thank God that it can go.”
What do you look forward to, and visualize for 2014?
Bella and The Major
Happy New Year! We started celebrating on New Year’s Eve Eve with Chinese.
Bella and the Major and a toast
Thank heaven, and cousin Tricia for homemade gingerale.
What’s the point of snow? Sledding!
Bella and sled
Who cares if it’s only 15 degrees? Not Bella!
Bella and Granny
We can always warm up baking cookies – and taking them to a friend.
A great beginning to 2014!
For more (almost) Wordlessness this Wednesday click here.
A new day, a new year dawning
New Year’s resolutions. The beginning of a New Year always has something of the seductive about it, no matter how dismissive we try to be, or how skeptical we think we have become.
I look at the blankness of the calendar’s pages, matching the blankness of the winter landscape and think about the ways I will fill the days of the new year, fill my days in the garden.
The older I get the unhappier I get with dichotomies, old or new, plain or fancy, dark or bright, good or bad. The older I get the more I see that we live in a continuum. We are always moving from one place to another.
Movement is irresistible and inevitable, but the movement is not always forward as in old to new. In the gardening world we see this in the tack of garden catalog promotions. They trumpet the New. Bigger! Better! Improved! There is the continuum, bigger, better and improved over the old varieties.
At the same time the old varieties, open pollinated varieties, heirloom varieties have come back into fashion and are once again New! The old flower varieties are again recognize for their charm, loveliness and fragrance, and old vegetable varieties appreciated for their flavor or hardiness or special suitability for a particular circumstance. They are also appreciated for their value in maintaining a diverse gene pool from whence new varieties will be born.
As I’ve considered the continuum I’ve asked people whether they have any new year’s resolutions. I’ve gotten an earful.
“More light!” One gardener said she and her husband had been working on their house and gardens for nearly two decades. They suddenly realized the sheltering woods around their house had grown so tall and dense that they shut out the sun. “I used to cringe at every tree that was cut down anywhere, but no more. The garden needs the sun.” And my friend assured me that lots of trees are left.”
This was a reminder to me that we have to be aware of how growth or depredation in our gardens creates the need to react to and work with those changes, whether it is trees that grow up and throw deep shade or old trees that blow down in storms resulting in unexpected sun.
Two other gardeners, one man and one woman, said their resolution was to get better equipment. Maybe a new tractor! Maybe just a new lawnmower. Both recognized the value of good sturdy tools and the necessity of caring for these tools and creating proper storage. I have my own resolution to create better storage for my tools and supplies.
“More dahlias!” Now there is a resolution that touches my heart. Aside from the fact that dahlias need to be dug in the fall and stored properly all winter, they don’t require a lot of care. In the end you can even treat the tubers as annuals. In the late summer they start a long season of bloom. Dahlias come in so many sizes and flower forms that there is a variety for every type of gardener and garden aesthetic. For me there is something about the big bold splashy vividly colored dahlias that really appeals. I’ve heard people call dahlias (surely only some dahlias) vulgar. I just think those glorious big irrepressible blossoms are great fun.
“We need to improve our soil.” This from my own son Chris who has never paid a lot of attention to the garden. Now he has a house that came with a yard of mossy compacted soil. Last year he put in a sod lawn, a mass of white rhododendrons, a holly hedge and a collection of shrubs around the house. Although he did take my advice about careful planting and compost, not everything has thrived. He is learning (the continuum again) that soil improvement is not a task you do once. It must continue throughout the life of a garden.
The custom of making new year’s resolutions gives us a ritual for looking at our past experience, in the garden and elsewhere. It also gives us a chance to think about new and interesting things we have seen during the year and to think about ways that we can incorporate some of those ideas in our own gardens.
Sometimes a review of the changes in our lives, children being born, children growing, children leaving, can affect the time we have for our gardens, or the kind of gardens we want to have.
Sometimes our interests change. With the easier availability of locally grown delicious vegetables the passion for a vegetable garden might wane, but a passion for dahlias might take its place.
Sometimes there is a change in our own health or strength and that compels a change in the scope of our gardens. The new year gives us a chance to consider the changes in our life and spurs us to think about shifting our efforts.
We toss around the words old and new, good and bad easily. But in the garden, as in life, it is movement along the continuum that keeps us balanced and happy.
I wish you all happiness in the garden all the new year long.
This first appeared in The Recorder in December 2004 BTC – Before the Commonweeder – and repeated in 2010.
Thanksgiving at the Friendship Hotel 1995
As I prepare for Thanksgiving in my nice American kitchen I cannot help thinking of other Thanksgivings, most notably two that were celebrated in Beijing where we lived in the Friendship Hotel. The first was in 1989, and the second in 1995. While many things had changed in those five years, much much more car traffic, much much less bicycle riding (because of the vehicular traffic), the arrival of big department stores and McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken, our apartment at the Friendship Hotel was just the same. Our tiny kitchen came equipped with a two burner gas stove, a tiny fridge and a sink. No oven. Drinking water was delivered by the fu yuans (service people) at the door every morning in the excellent thermos bottles that you can see on the window sill. I had to visit our new friend Bettina who lived across town and had an oven in her tiny kitchen. Together we made this pie with delicious Chinese apples.
Li Sha was our wonderful language partner that year. I have to say that her excellent English may have improved somewhat, but I certainly made very little progress in my Chinese. I went around quoting a cartoon that one of our friends tacked up on his front door. The prisoner is being walked to the scaffold when he is told he will be granted a final request. His request? To learn Chinese. Oh, for a long lifetime of studying Chinese. I am happy say that our friendship with Li Sha has endured. She was even able to make her first trip to the US last year. She is used to big city living so Heath was a big change. The thing that most amazed her was our clear winter sky, thickly sprinkled with brilliant stars. No smog. No light pollution.
Henry with our turkey
The Friendship Hotel took orders for Thanksgiving turkeys which we picked up at the Foreign Experts Dining Hall at the appointed hour. The Chinese don’t know much about turkeys, but they did a great job.
All the gang for Thanksgiving dinner
Our dinner guests included other Foreign Experts like Bettina, and in 1995 we had several Chinese friends as well. All of us had something we could be thankful for. In addition to making new good friends, one of the blessings I counted that year was being able to attend the UN Women’s Conference. I had learned a lot about the life of Chinese women while working for Women of China Magazine, but I gained a much greater understanding of the problems women faced around the globe, as well as their achievements.
Bettina and me after dinner
Bettina shared bows with me for the apple pie. Our friendship is one of our unexpected Beijing blessings.
This year I will again be celebrating Thanksgiving with my daughters and sons, granddaughters and grandsons, grateful that we are all well and happy. I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving with your family and friends.
Welcome to Heath Halloween
Because we are such a rural, spread-out town children can’t easily go trick or treating from house to house. A Tailgate Halloween in the town center was planned, but the rain called for an instant revision. The community hall was quickly turned into Trick or Treat Central and the youngest children, baby pumpkins and kittens, arrived first, followed later by the older kids who had a map of all the houses in town where the Trick or Treat light was on.
Even the witches needed to have their fortune told before going on to the main event. Candy! Also apple cider and donuts.
Candy – all you can carry
This is the only night when the grown-ups urge children to take more candy. Go on. You can have another handful!
For some there were scary stories! Bats in the library, terrified bunnies, scared siblings. Max and Ruby – what are you doing?
Ghouls and witches
All the ghouls, witches, kittens, spiders, frogs, French knights, gorillas, elephants, Princess brides, and fishermen of all ages in town turned out for a sweetly ghastly celebration.