Gardens on Canvas


copyright Anne Underwood Enslow“Of all the wonderful things in the wonderful universe of God, nothing seems to me more surprising than the planting of a seed in the blank earth and the results there.” So wrote Celia Thaxer in her delightful 1904 book An Island Garden–one of the many revelations of the enchanting new show at the New York Botanical Garden, “Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas.”

From a remote island off the coast of New Hampshire, Thaxter ran an artists’ colony that attracted the likes of American Impressionist Childe Hassam, who found that he could paint Thaxter’s delightful gardens and the rocky ledges just beyond them from the comfort of her porch–while enjoying the company of other artists and musicians who flocked there in the summer.

DSC_0138That Thaxter managed to grow a garden at all in the rocky Isles of Shoals is a testament to her dedication as a gardener. In the fall, she would retreat to her winter home in Portsmouth, NH, where she would begin her garden for the following spring, cultivating poppies, hollyhocks, stocks, and other flowers indoors until it was time to return to Appledore Island on April 1. Then all the plants went with her. “A small steam tug, the Pinafore, carries me and my household belongings over to the islands,” wrote Thaxter, “and a pretty sight is the little vessel when she starts out from the old brown wharves and steams away down the beautiful Piscataqua River, with her hurricane deck awave with green leaves and flowers, for all the world like a May Day procession.”

Copyright Anne Underwood Enslow
She was not the only gardener to cater to artists. There was Florence Griswold in Lyme, Connecticut, and artist William Merritt Chase, who held painting classes en plein air on eastern Long Island. The paintings that the various artists produced in these locations are on exhibition, but it is not permitted to photograph them. The glorious flowers in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, however, are fully accessible–and totally satisfied the shutterbug in me, as you can see here. They represent the type of old-fashioned garden that was popular at the time–brimming with peonies, iris, foxglove, poppies, lilies, and delphiniums–“grandmother’s gardens,” they called them.

Copyright Anne Underwood EnslowCopyright Anne Underwood Enslow

Copyright Anne Underwood Enslow The trifecta of splendid paintings, glorious flowers, and luminous prose (available from books in the shop) combine to make this show an extravagant delight. Of honeysuckle Thaxter writes, “Each cluster is a triumph of beauty, flat in the centre and curving out to the blossoming edge in joyous lines of loveliness, most like a wreath of heavenly trumpets breathing melodies of perfume to the air.” Of a poppy seed, she says, “it lies in your palm, the merest atom of matter, hardly visible, a speck, a pin’s point in bulk, but within it is imprisoned a spirit of beauty ineffable, which will break its bonds and emerge from the dark ground and blossom in a splendor so dazzling as to baffle all powers of description.”
Copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

Copyright Anne Underwood EnslowBut there is another reason why I found this show so powerful. The era it depicts was one of unsettling economic and cultural shifts, industrialization, and labor unrest. To people of the time, these old-fashioned gardens represented “stability and a sense of time and place in a rapidly changing world,” in the words of art historian David Schuyler. In our own rapidly changing world, the same thing could easily apply. It’s a moving testament to the power of a garden.

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My New Zen Garden

BambooWhen we moved into our new house, I found a garden already in place, though not the garden I would have created for myself. In my ideal garden, I would have tons of wildflowers and native plants. It would be full of bees and butterflies. And I would feed myself for much of the summer from its produce. What we have here instead is a garden that’s shaded most of the day, precluding the riotous flowerbed and vegetable garden I would normally plant.

But the previous owners created something equally amazing in its own way–a Japanese-style garden, full of stones and sculptural rocks and an astonishing sense of tranquility for a garden in the midst of a bustling city. There is a small pond and waterfall in the back, which has a remarkable effect on visitors sitting out back. “It’s better than a spa break,” as one friend put it. The previous owners left these notes so that we could understand what we’ve been lucky enough to inherit.

Excerpted from A Japanese Garden Journey: Through Ancient Stones and Dragon Bones by Judith D. Klingsick

“A Japanese garden is often called a ‘garden of the mind’… Whatever its style, every Japanese garden serves as a mirror of nature. Perhaps the most vivid reflection you will see in that mirror is a ‘tension of opposites:’ delicate versus dramatic, changeless versus changing, wild versus controlled. Like the cosmic forces of In and Yo (Yin and Yang in Chinese philosophy), the opposites are never in conflict. Rather they complement each other in order to bring about balance and harmony in life as well as in the garden.”

Zigzag paths~ Zigzag pathways: “Japanese legends say that evil spirits can travel only in a straight line. Therefore, bridges and pathways often use zigzags in their designs. While you can easily shift directions, the evil spirits that may be following you can’t twist or turn. They either fall off the water or veer off the path, no longer able to bother you.”

Sculptural rocks~ Rocks: “Ancient legends suggest that huge rocks heaving out of the ground are dragon bones. In fact, rocks throughout the history of Japan have been called ‘the bones of the earth.’ They are the framework or skeleton that holds the world together. Whether they are pebbles for a river bed or boulders for a mountain-scape, rocks are the most important element of a Japanese garden. Garden designers… determine the rock’s best ‘face’ by looking at its veins, colors and fissures. They plant rocks into the ground, making it seem as if a rock has been living in that place forever. The more moss and lichen growing on a rock, the better, because they add age and permanence to its character.”

~ Small rock gardens: Ours were influenced by Zen gardens “named after a branch of Buddhism which emphasizes meditation and simple living in harmony with nature as ways to find inner peace.”

~ Bamboo fence & bamboo plants: In Japan, this member of the grass family is a sacred barrier against evil; in China, a symbol of longevity.

Moon gate~ The “moon gate” on our back fence is a variation on this theme:

From Lewis Ginter’s Botanical Garden: “A moon gate is an intriguing entryway that dates back to ancient China and Japan. Its defining element is a partial-circle opening that acts as the pedestrian’s passageway into the garden…. Asian noblemen incorporated moon gates in their landscapes for spiritual enrichment. The opening transported the visitor from the human world to the natural world—from busyness to relaxation and reflection … Then and now, a moon gate symbolizes the transition to a special place of beauty and respite … the circle universally represents perfection, eternity and wholeness. The moon gate takes you from one place of beauty to another, and in its pure form reminds us how we all are connected through space, time and spirit.”

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Signing Off–For Now

Copyright Anne Underwood EnslowFor the last four years, I have written about the challenges of urban gardening—that is, gardening without any actual yard or lawn, only concrete strip next to the sidewalk and the tiny patch of dirt around the tree in the sidewalk. Over the years, I have been flabbergasted at neighbors who have picked my flowers, dug up the marigolds around the tree, walked off with entire potted plants, and plucked and eaten my tomatoes right in front of me. I have adopted several methods of deterrence to stop the pilfering. For example, to prevent pranksters from walking off with plants hanging on the railing around the house, I planted morning glories this year to replace the hanging plants. Just let them untangle those unruly vines!

Copyright Anne Underwood EnslowBut now that I am moving to a new house with an actual garden behind it—a garden that won’t be on the street and therefore will be protected from human predation—I find myself already missing the myriad exchanges I have with neighbors on a regular basis, while watering or otherwise tending the garden. Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t stop and say, “Beautiful garden.” “This must be the botanical gardens of Hoboken.” “It reminds me of my grandmother’s garden in the old country.” “I’m teaching my child vegetables from your garden.” “I’m teaching my little girls colors from looking at your flowers.” And best, “This place used to be so dead. You’ve brought it to life.”

Here’s what it looks like today–compared to what it looked like before I started my garden. It’s brought me far more joy than I ever could have anticipated. For all its challenges and limitations, I will miss it.

Copyright Anne Underwood Enslow
House before garden

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The Tenacity of Life

The growing season is drawing to a close. Gone are the languid days of summer, the late light nights, the embracing warmth of sunshine. Instead there is a crisp snap in the air, and temperatures dip into the 40s at night. Surely the plants should be shutting down for winter. And yet…..

Late-season tomatoes continue to grow and ripen, if less convincingly than earlier ones (photo, below). A brand new eggplant appeared outside two weeks ago, along with a number of purple flowers, on a plant that I had been on the verge of pulling out in September. The Darcy Bussell roses are still producing occasional blossoms. And the vincas appear to have barely noticed the encroaching cold.

Late-season tomatoes--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

Sidewalk tomatoes--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowBut what amazes me most are the plants that have taken root in odd places—those that have crept beyond the pots and containers where they were supposed to remain. I’m not only talking about the unruly mint, which has put down firm roots in a neighboring pot. Sprigs of calibrachoa from last year’s hanging baskets are blooming in the cement next to our house. And, most remarkable, two cherry tomato plants are springing from cracks in the sidewalk! Perhaps some ripe tomatoes fell off and got crushed underfoot, spreading their seeds to these unpromising little patches of dirt. However they got there, these tenacious tomatoes have four little green fruits on them, and a cluster of yellow flowers. What a sense of optimism they give me.

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Drying Herbs

As a child, I remember trying to dry basil for the winter. It was an entirely unsatisfactory enterprise, as the basil consistently turned black and tasteless. I never thought I would dry herbs again. But this season, I cannot bear to let these fragrant herbs go to waste, so I decided to opt for hope over experience and give it another shot.

Photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowSo far, so good! This time, I went to the website of the National Center for Home Food Preservation and found exactly how to treat a variety of herbs for best results. Those with sturdy leaves (such as rosemary and thyme) can be hung in small bunches to dry. Those with more tender leaves (including tarragon) can also be hung in small bunches, but placed in a paper bag with holes cut in the sides; the sprigs will get airflow that way, but the bag will catch leaves and seeds that fall off.

Photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowMy favorite drying method, however, is the one that’s suggested for mint—to remove the leaves and place them individually on a paper towel, then allow them to dry in a very cool oven for 12 hours or so. (Simply turning on the oven light is enough.)

Now, while my rosemary, tarragon, and thyme are air drying, I already have a lovely batch of dried mint to crumble into my vanilla yogurt in the morning—and the air in the apartment is deliciously fragrant. Fingers crossed for good results with the others!
Photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow
But here’s a mystery. What happened to this little inchworm that was in my mint? I only spotted him for a few seconds before he disappeared. I’m not even certain what he is, but my guess is that he’s the caterpillar of a crocus geometer moth, which uses mint as a host plant. Sorry to disturb you, little fellow.

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The Last Monarch

Monarch on gomphrenas--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowDeli on Washington Street--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowI thought the great migration of monarch butterflies from the Northeast to Mexico had ended. It had been weeks since I’d seen a monarch in my garden. But today I spotted this straggler on the main street of Hoboken, sampling the nectar of some flowers outside a deli. These purple gomphrenas are apparently a butterfly delicacy. Note to self: Plant some next year!
Monarch on gomphrenas--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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Butterflies in the Broccoli

Cabbage white eggs--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowThe black swallowtail butterflies are gone for the season. The remaining caterpillars have formed their chrysalises and will spend the winter encased in their crisp armor. But that does not mean that all the caterpillars and butterflies have necessarily vanished for the year. In September, the cabbage white butterflies discovered my broccoli plants and laid dozens of eggs on the undersides of their leaves (photo, above). Curious to see what their caterpillars would look and act like, I plucked off a leaf with six eggs on it and brought it inside, where I placed it in a container.

Cabbage whites are, frankly, regarded as agricultural pests. I have friends who exterminate them as quickly as they can, as the caterpillars can be ravenous little creatures, wreaking destruction on cabbage and related crops. For these friends, it would be unthinkable to coddle and protect the caterpillars (which hostile farmers call “cabbage worms”). But I have always loved the common little butterflies that develop from them. Unlike black swallowtails, which have a jerky, nervous flutter and only visit my garden occasionally to lay eggs, the cabbage whites are gentle little creatures that grace my garden for most of the season, flitting gently from one flower to the next. Their calm presence brings me a sense of inner peace. That’s why I was happy to see a cabbage white butterfly laying eggs on my broccoli on day last month. At last, I thought, their mysteries will be revealed.

Cabbage white caterpillars--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowNote to the butterfly enthusiast: If you want to watch caterpillars develop into butterflies, do not pick cabbage whites as your pet project. First, the cabbage leaves (or in this case broccoli leaves) are not exactly floral air fresheners. If you’re just observing the caterpillars outside, that’s one thing, but if you’re picking the leaves and placing them in containers indoors, it’s quite another. All cruciferous veggies—including broccoli, cabbage, kale, and arugula—contain sulfur compounds. Day after day, I would come back to my apartment after running errands or working outside in the garden to an odor resembling rotten eggs. My first reaction was always, “Phew, we really need to take out the garbage!” Then I would remember the broccoli leaves, growing fragrant in the container.

Second, cabbage-white caterpillars turn out to be exceedingly unremarkable little creatures. After the eggs hatch, the larvae are at first so tiny that it is actually hard to see them. Even as they grow larger (photo, above right), they are still hard to spot, so perfectly do they blend in with the leaves. Sometimes they rest right on the midrib of the leaf, looking just like part of the plant. Even when they mature, they are a mere ¾ inch long. If it weren’t for the holes they eat in the leaves—and the poop they leave behind—it would be easy to miss them altogether. Nor do they perform any of the endearing gymnastics of a black swallowtail caterpillar. It’s only when they near maturity that they start to move around the container much at all (video, below).

Still, like all forms of life, they hold mystery. I started with six tiny caterpillars—three of whom promptly disappeared. But where did they go? It’s hard to imagine that there were any of the normal predators inside that sealed container. Certainly no birds plucked them off. So what happened to them? Did I throw them out with the old broccoli leaves, failing to notice them? Or do caterpillars practice cannibalism? I don’t know.

And then there is the ultimate mystery of metamorphosis. No matter how many times I see it, watching a caterpillar form a chrysalis still fills me with awe at witnessing part of a transformation so profound. However, I must admit to having had a tinge of disappointment when I saw the “cabbage patch kids” (as my husband calls them) string up the same way the black swallowtails do. The fact that such an ordinary little caterpillar would spin the very same kind of silken sling somehow made my black swallowtails seem a little less special. I felt like the little prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s charming book of the same title. The prince had always thought that the rose on his tiny planet was unique. Then he found that on other planets, there were lots of roses just like her.

Cabbage white butterfly--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowAfter 9-10 days, the cabbage butterflies emerged. Unlike the flighty swallowtails, they showed no particular eagerness to escape the confines of their little container, but sat patiently on their sticks, even after their wings had hardened and dried. When I tried to release the first one outside, urging it onto a butterfly bush, it fluttered right back into the container—the only home it had ever known. The second one left more readily. Soon they had flown off to explore new gardens.

I went back inside and washed out the container. The chrysalises, left behind, crumbled like a dry leaf.

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The Sincerest Form of Flattery

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I’m not so sure about that. As I apply that phrase to my garden, I’m rapidly concluding that the highest form of flattery today is theft.

Yellow tomatoes--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowLast week, I was out watering my garden when a woman I’d never seen before came by and said, “I love your yellow tomatoes.” She didn’t mean that they look pretty, the orange-yellow orbs set off handsomely against the dark green foliage. She meant that they taste good, which she knew first hand because, as she explained, “I pick one every time I come by.” She then proceeded to reach over the fence, pluck one off, and pop it in her mouth—right in front of me, as I stood there agape. She seemed to think that I should take this as a compliment.

Lantana--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowThen yesterday morning, I came outside to water my plants. After taking care of the herbs and flowers on the stoop and front stairs, I headed for those on the street level. I gave water to one of the two lantanas in hanging baskets on a railing around the house (right), then wheeled around to water the other one—watering can poised in mid-air—when I noticed that the second one was gone. Missing. I blinked twice and had a quick look around to make sure that no one had moved it to another location. Nope. It was completely gone. Someone had walked off with it.

This, of course, is one of the risks you take when you start an urban garden. Your property is there in plain sight for people to enjoy—and take, if they aren’t deterred by the fact that it’s actually behind a fence on private property. There are certain people that I invite to take whatever they want, like the neighbors who tend the garden for me when I’m away. But total strangers? My garden hose vanished earlier this season, along with dozens of roses, and almost all my first crop of Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes.

Yellow tomatoes--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow Theft is older than the Bible, of course. But I can’t help wondering if today’s Internet culture contributes to the modern scourge in any way. As a writer, I’ve been hearing for over a decade now that “information wants to be free”—meaning that news organizations should give away their content and that aggregators should be able to repurpose this work at will without paying for it, as long as they cite the original source. Do people think that physical objects also “want to be free”? Is there a new culture of entitlement that has nothing to do with government handouts, but instead is nourished by the outright piracy of books, movies, music, and other content on the Web? What astonished me about the tomato lady was that she wasn’t embarrassed to admit she was helping herself to my property. To her, it apparently wasn’t stealing at all. “These tomatoes are so expensive in the store,” she said by way of explanation. “That’s why I take yours.” Gee, thanks.

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50 Shades of Kale

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 4.17.37 PMIt’s that time of year—when the days shorten, the weather grows cooler, and the kale perks up, along with the arugula, Swiss chard, and broccoli. And this year, just in time for National Kale Day—October 1—I finally know what to do with a bumper crop. Dr. Drew Ramsey and Jennifer Iserloh (“the Skinny Chef”) have a daring new book, Fifty Shades of Kale: 50 Fresh & Satisfying Recipes That Are Bound to Please, which tells you how to add kale to almost anything, from mojitos to sorbet. So if you think of kale as a boring vegetable that’s too “healthy” to be enjoyable, it’s time to reconsider.

Kale guacamole--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowKale chocolate chip cookies--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow
Last night I gave some of the recipes a test run, when a neighbor came to dinner. Informed that every course was going to feature kale, she did not exactly express enthusiasm. But the kale guacamole that we served with hors d’oeuvres (photo, right) eased her concerns. For the main course, we offered a choice of three unusual kinds of pesto for a taste test—green olive pesto, red pepper pesto, and kale pesto (2 parts kale to one part basil, with garlic, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, and walnuts)—and she actually chose the kale pesto as her favorite. For dessert, we baked kale chocolate chip cookies (right), as gooey and delicious as Mom’s ever tasted, fresh from the oven. When all was said and done, she declared the dinner a success—though mainly because she couldn’t taste the kale, even though she’d eaten at least of cup of it by that point. (Chopped up, it blends in with the strong flavors around it. If this sounds suspiciously like the approach taken in Jessica Seinfeld’s book Deceptively Delicious, there’s a reason for that—Iserloh was the recipe developer for that book, too.)

Red Russian kale--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowGiven this encouragement to explore kale recipes, next year I would like to grow more than the usual lacinato and curly kale. There are actually close to 50 varieties, including some heirlooms that sound intriguing. “Red Russian is a show-stopper,” writes Marie Iannotti in The Beginner’s Guide to Growing Heirloom Vegetables. “The frilly blue-green leaves with purple veins and stems make them a study in cool colors.” (Amazingly, I was able to buy a Red Russian from the plant shop across the street last Sunday–the only kale plant they had in stock–photo, left). Not surprisingly, Red Russian comes from Russia and does well in cold weather, Iannotti writes. “It not only gets sweeter, but its color intensifies in the cold.” What’s more, it’s quick and easy to grow and even stays mild and sweet through the summer. Other Russian heirloom varieties include Gulag Stars, Russian Frills, and Siberian. Time to get planting!

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The Invasion of the Chiliheads

Cayenne pepper--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowPlenty of new words have been coined in recent years, but only one of them as far as I know pertains to gardening—chiliheads. These are the firebrands who breed ever more scorching chili peppers in search of the most red-hot, heart-thumping, sweat-inducing chili you can imagine.

It wasn’t so long ago that gringos in the United States began spicing up their food with jalapeños—piquant little peppers that scored roughly 5,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU) on the scale used to rate these things. Today those are mere entry-level chilis, strictly for beginners in the macho competition to breed (and eat) the most death-defying peppers. There is now a whole class of “superhots” that score above 500,000 SHU—including the Ghost Chili (1 million), 7-Pot Primo (named for its supposed ability to flavor seven pots of stew with a single pepper), Moruga Scorpion (wicked, at 2 million), and Carolina Reaper (grim, at 2.2 million SHU). As Lauren Collins wrote in The New Yorker, “Gastromasochists have likened [the Ghost Chili] to molten lava, burning needles, and ‘the tip of my tongue being branded by a fine point of heated steel’.”

Habaneros--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowI have absolutely no interest in trying any of them. My husband and I are what you might call chili wimps, and with good reason. In my first year of container gardening, I grew cayenne peppers (photo, above) and habañeros (right). The former were lovely. The latter were lethal—well, almost. One evening, my husband innocently decided to toss them into the stir-fry. Immediately, the peppers unleashed a gas not unlike pepper spray that seemingly sucked the oxygen out of the room. He gasped for air. He turned off the burners and threw open the windows. No effect. He ran into the living room and still was struggling to breathe. (And habañeros rate a mere 275,000 SHU.)

Corno di toro--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowPeople who ought to know tell us that he wasn’t really in any danger and that the gas is no more dangerous than pepper spray. But since then, I’ve planted only nice, safe peppers that no one would dream of classifying as widow makers. This year I chose a docile heirloom variety, whose most dangerous attribute was its name—corno de toro, or “horn of the bull” in honor of its curved and pointed shape. It’s the largest of the sweet stuffing peppers. It’s lovely for roasting or chopped in gazpacho. And the hottest thing about it is the intense red color it turns when ripe. (This late-season batch still has a way to go.)

By the way, should you decide to brave a Carolina Reaper (or even a habañero), here’s your fire extinguisher—not water, but full-fat milk. The heat-inducing compound in peppers, capsaicin, is fat soluble, not water soluble. So keep a glass of milk handy, guys—even if it doesn’t do much for your firebreathing image.
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Gloriosa Daisy

Gloriosa diasies with bee--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowWhat praise can I give these Tiger Eye Gold gloriosa daisies (also known as black-eyed Susans)? They’re beautiful, easy to care for, and even inspire poetry of sorts. As that ubiquitous writer Anonymous once said:

“I used to love my garden,-
But now my love is dead,
For I found a bachelor’s button
In black-eyed Susan’s bed.”

Gloriosa daisy--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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Got Milkweed?

Red admiral--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowAt the entrance to Hoboken, my hometown, are several signs: “Bike-friendly community,” “Nuclear-free zone,” and even “Mental condition stigma-free zone.” I’d like to add my own sign to the group—one that is at least as accurate as those: “Butterfly-friendly zone.” At the start of the season, I planted lots of butterfly-friendly plants—lantanas, butterfly bushes, zinnias, along with dill and parsley for the black swallowtail butterflies. I’ve been rewarded with numerous sightings of black swallowtails, red admirals (photo, left), and cabbage white butterflies. But one customary visitor has been in short supply—monarchs.

Milkweed in bloom--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowThe past few years have been tough ones for monarch butterflies, as their population has plummeted—falling victim to habitat loss and yards doused with toxic pesticides and herbicides. Milkweed is the only plant that monarchs lay their eggs on. The leaves and milky sap feed the caterpillars, while the flowers (right) provide nectar for the adult butterflies. Yet the weeds are unwelcome in tidy yards and have largely been eradicated by homeowners.

Monarch on my milkweed--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowLast spring, I decided to help by ordering milkweed from Monarch Watch. My husband objected, of course. He pointed out that the stuff grows wild in the Great Swamp (which is a real place, this being New Jersey). “We could just go and collect some,” he said. But when would we really take the time to do it? I placed an order for an entire flat—32 plugs—which is a lot of milkweed for a container garden. Still, when my weeds arrived, I let out a small yelp of delight. I immediately opened the box and breathed in the deep, rich scent of the earth. Then I ran outside to plant them in nice organic soil. I even gave them mulch. (Am I crazy, or what, pampering my weeds? Good thing Hoboken is a “mental condition stigma-free zone”!)

Milkweed tussock moth caterpillar--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowI’ve seen a number of monarchs in my garden this summer, mainly on the other nectar flowers. But I’ve only spotted one monarch on the milkweed (photos, directly above and at the bottom)—and I haven’t seen a single monarch caterpillar, though I’ve regularly checked the undersides of leaves for eggs and larvae. (The curious little guy on the left—the caterpillar of a milkweed tussock moth—was on someone else’s milkweed.)

Aphids on milkweed--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowMilkweed seed pods--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowMainly what I’ve attracted this year, in frightening abundance, are these bright yellow aphids (left). But next year is another season, and I’m sure I’ll have more milkweed. At the end of the summer, the plant forms these seed pods (right). Mine produced a bumper crop. Carried on the wind, they’ve now dispersed throughout the neighborhood–whether the neighbors want them or not. Monarch on my milkweed--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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7 Steps to Great Garden Photos

Dahlia at Mohonk--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowHave you ever been wowed by a garden, only to find that your photos of it were lifeless and dull? Technically, they might be flawless—like the seed-packet photos that capture a single perfect flower in the center of the frame. “Those are fine to illustrate a point,” says photographer Larry Decker. “But to create art, you have to go a step further. You should take photos the same way an artist paints—with attention to lighting, color, and composition.”

Decker should know. He’s a painter himself, as well as the garden photographer for Chronogram, a magazine devoted to the arts, food, and culture of the Hudson Valley. (To see some of his work, click here.) He recently led a workshop at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY, as part of Mohonk’s annual Garden Holiday, taking participants into the estate’s magnificent gardens for an early-morning photo session. There he helped us apply his tips and tricks to our own pictures.

Cattails at Mohonk--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow1. Use the light. Light in the early morning and late afternoon is more vibrant, creating more saturated colors than the harsh glare of midday. But that’s not the only reason to shoot at these times of day. The sun in these nether hours, being lower in the sky, tends to cast more shadows, creating visual interest. Look for flowers or plants in a beam of light; the shadows behind will highlight them (photo, left).

Gardens at Mohonk--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow2. Find something to lead your eye into the photo. In this case (below), the path creates a strong line that’s reinforced by the tree’s shadow. The horizontal rock across the path and the bent tree trunk all help to draw your eye into the center.
3. Save red, orange, and magenta for accents. They’re glorious colors, but a solid mass of these flowers is visually too “hot” to make a pleasing photograph. Instead, zoom out and capture more of the surrounding greenery to “cool off” the colors (photo, below). If you can, try to capture red, blue, yellow in the same picture. “They are basic and satisfying, like visual comfort food,” he says. Gardens at Mohonk--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

The greenhouse gate at Mohonk--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow4. Use textures. The rough cut of the wood–plus the rust on the horseshoe–turn a two-dimensional picture (left) into something you can almost feel. By adding the illusion of another sense in addition to sight, the image becomes more interesting.

5. Don’t chase birds, bees, and butterflies for a photo. You can pursue flighty creatures for hours. Like celebrities ducking the paparazzi, they’ll move on. Instead, observe them in action, and see which flowers they’re going to. Once you’ve figured out the pattern, stand in a place they’re likely to visit. It may take a while, but they’ll figure out that you’re not a threat and will come to a flower near you.
Honeybee on garlic chives--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

Grasses at Mohonk--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow6. Add “movement.” Speaking of illusion (tip #4), you can also create the sense of motion in a still photo. These grasses seem to be blowing in the wind. In fact, it was a very still morning. The droop of the grass creates the “movement” in the mind of anyone who’s seen tall grasses bend with the breeze.

7. Odd numbers work better than evens. Even numbers are balanced and stable, which is great if you’re looking for a partner in life or two couples for a hand of bridge–but, visually, evens tend to be boring. Odd numbers of flowers create a more dynamic look. I don’t actually know how many coneflowers are in this photo, but the trio in the center grabs my attention.
Cone flowers at Mohonk--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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Flower Arranging 101: Think Like an Artist

Did you ever wonder how florists create those perfect arrangements? Ever wonder why your own, by contrast, appear boring and “one-sided”—fine from the front, but mediocre from any other angle? Whether you’re aiming for a tight little bouquet to sit on the dinner table without blocking people’s view—or a taller, more dramatic arrangement to grace your front hall—there is one principle to keep in mind, says florist Carol Cramer, who creates dozens of arrangements every week for Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY. “You want to think like an artist, with attention to color, texture, and form.” In a hands-on workshop she gave as part of Mohonk’s annual Garden Holiday, she showed us how to start applying this to our own creations. Here are some of the lessons I took away.

Flower arranging class at Mohonk--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

Think beyond supermarket flowers.
A $10 bouquet from the local bodega may fulfill the basic requirement for flowers on the table. But it’s unlikely to have the variety you want. “That’s why you need a garden,” says Cramer—or at least a place where you can buy individual stems, so that you can mix and match them for the desired effects. The bouquet doesn’t have to be expensive. You can even add wildflowers and weeds—such as goldenrod, purple loosestrife, and scented ferns. These will give you different forms, textures, and colors that will make your creation more interesting.

Another of Carol's arrangements with sunflowers--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowChoose a base color for your flowers and complement it. Did you ever notice how paintings by the artist Paul Gauguin look so vibrant? Gauguin was a master of complementary colors—that is, colors opposite each other on the color wheel. Purple and yellow are complementary colors. So are green and red–or orange and blue. These combinations “pop,” for a simple reason. Stimulating the eye’s color-perceiving cones creates an after-image of its opposite, complementary color, so the two intensify each other. (For a vivid example of how this works, click here. After staring at the green-on-red image, you will look away and see the identical after image, but reversed—red-on-green.) You don’t have to be scientific about this in your arrangement. Just be aware that each slightly different shade will have its own complementary color. Once you’ve chosen the base color of your flowers, says Cramer, “see how it changes depending on what colors are next to it.”

Carol's arrangement--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowLayer colors in the same family. Any color can get monotonous very quickly if you use a solid block of it. But you can prevent this by using different shades in the same overall family.

Don’t forget your greens. Foliage tends to be an afterthought. It shouldn’t be. It adds everything you want—contrasting color, different textures, and new forms. Cramer particularly likes greenery that’s a bright chartreuse. “Chartreuse makes the other colors pop,” she says. “Chartreuse keeps it lively.”

Remember that the vase is part of your arrangement. The vase may look pretty on its own, but does it match the flowers you’ve chosen? Delicate pink roses might look pretty in a cream-colored vase. But boldly colored dahlias look better in a more brightly colored container. Particularly trendy now are colored Mason jars, which we used in our class (photo, left).

Flower arranging class at Mohonk--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowTEXTURE:
Use a variety of textures. Different textures create resting spots for the eyes, says Cramer. Velvety coxcomb is nice, for example, against smooth dark leaves or berries. Dusty miller gives a soft, silvery sheen.

Let it breathe. A lot of round-faced flowers like dahlias or zinnias may be lovely. But unless you have a perfectly round, tight bouquet, you probably want something spikey or airy to break it up. That’s where something like goldenrod or purple loosestrife can be useful—or snapdragons or delphiniums, if you have them in your garden.

Finally—drumroll, please—Cramer addressed my number-one problem, “one-sidedness.” You can see how well her solution works in the photos below, which show my arrangement from the front, back, and above. (OK, I’m no pro, but believe me, this is progress.)

My arrangement from the front--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowTurn your bouquet with each flower you add. There’s a simple reason why my arrangements are one-sided. I start by putting a stem into the vase, then trying to arrange the others around it—all while staring at it from the same angle. To get an arrangement that’s balanced on all sides, you have to keep turning it. You can do this by turning the vase, but Cramer also demonstrated how to do this while assembling the bouquet in her hand.

My arrangement from the back--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowHere’s how. Place a few flowers in your left hand as you’d like to see them in your arrangement. Then with your right hand, rotate the bunch a quarter of a turn to the right. Add another flower that would look good with the previous ones, and turn the whole bouquet again, a quarter of a rotation to the right. Continue this way until you’ve used all your flowers and greens, and–voilà!–you will find that you have an evenly balanced bouquet that looks good from multiple angles.

My Mohonk flower arrangement--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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A New Zest for Zinnias

Stoop garden--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowI don’t think I’ve appreciated zinnias enough. When I was young, they seemed so ordinary—simple to grow from seed, simple to care for, and so abundant that they felt commonplace. With their headstrong colors, they lacked the delicacy or subtlety of, say, irises or lilacs. Yet now, it seems, I can’t get enough of them. Some neighbors down the street planted three large containers of them in July, and I was immediately seized with zinnia envy. The colors were so bright and appealing. Of course, I had to buy some of my own (these are Magellan Mix), and they are now the pride of my stoop garden–that portion of my garden that occupies the stoop and front stairs of our townhouse. Passersby regularly stop to admire them. And there’s a bonus, too. They’re perfect nectar flowers for monarchs and other butterflies.
Zinnias--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

Monarch butterfly on zinnia--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow
Zinnias--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow
Zinnias--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow
Zinnias--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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Mollie’s Zucchini Soup

Zucchini--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowZucchini is one of those plants that makes you feel like a successful gardener. Its mighty leaves create such a grand sprawl that you feel perfectly justified crediting yourself for the plant’s magnificence.

Better yet, it also makes you feel like an accomplished chef. It’s simple to chop and easy to cook, plus it readily takes on the flavors you mix it with. For years, my mother and I tried one zucchini recipe after another—ratatouille, zucchini bread, stuffed zucchini, you name it. But none was more cherished than our recipe for zucchini soup from the original edition of Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook. “We like soup p. 24,” wrote my mother in the front—and though we modified it to suit our tastes (who doesn’t?), it remained a perennial favorite.

Zucchini soup--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowLast night I made it for dinner again, and it was just as good after all these years. But the real secret to its deliciousness isn’t the zucchini, which after all has little flavor. It’s the basil. “It should really be called basil soup,” my mother once commented. With an added sprig of the good stuff on top, what’s not to like? Sweet Genovese basil proves itself a winner once again. Sweet.

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Madame Butterfly

Female black swallowtail--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowEver since the first black swallowtail caterpillars turned up in my dill patch, I’ve been referring to the little guys as “him,” provoking some friends and relatives to accuse me of being sexist. Well, now I know that (for the most part) I was right. My fourth black swallowtail emerged today–a beauty like all the others (photo, left). But she was the first female of the lot. How can I tell?

Male black swallowtail (Pilly 3)--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowThe answer is in the markings on the wings. The top sides of the males’ wings are predominantly black and yellow, with only a tiny patch of blue–and of course, those wonderful orange eye spots at the bottom to distract predators (photo, right). By contrast, the female’s wings have a much larger band of blue across the bottom, and the yellow spots on the upper wings are less pronounced.

As for the underside of the wings, they provide no guidance. They have the same bold markings as the males’ wings, as seen in this photo of my hour-old female–perhaps my favorite picture of the summer. (Check out the chrysalis, still attached to the stick beneath her.) It gives me great pleasure to say, “Welcome, Madame Butterfly.”
Pilly 4--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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The Great Tomato Harvest

Cherokee Purple seedling--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowThe ugly ducklings in my garden at the start of the season were the Cherokee Purple tomato seedlings that arrived in May from Urban Farmer. They were such scrawny little things—sickly-looking, almost (photo, right)—that I would never have believed it if you’d told me they would grow into mighty 5-foot-tall stalks, heavy with sprawling branches and beefy, grass-scented tomatoes. But now they are the showstoppers of my garden–the swans, if you will–that cause someone almost every day to stop and say, “lookin’ good.”

Anne's tomatoes--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowBetter yet, the tomatoes taste fabulous. Freshly sliced—with a drizzle of olive oil and freshly ground black pepper—they’re nothing short of sublime.

But my favorite recipe of the season has been “My Fresh Tomato Stew for All Sort of Things” from Matt Wilkinson’s cookbook, Mr. Wilkinson’s Vegetables. With extra virgin olive oil, shallots, fresh garlic, baby capers, and fresh basil and parsley right out of the garden, it’s a true late-summer treat. Better yet, it’s easy to make–no peeling or seeding the tomatoes. All you have to do is chop them. And unlike most tomato sauce, Mr. Wilkinson’s version has only a pinch of salt. “You’d never know it,” said my husband tonight. “It’s so flavorful.” It’s amazing what fresh, tasty ingredients will do for you–along with the specified 14 grinds of the pepper mill.
Anne's tomatoes--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

Related post: Mr. Wilkinson’s Vegetables

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The Caterpillar Rescue League

Pilly 3--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowNineteenth-century Americans were obsessed with butterflies. They called them “flying flowers” and “flying jewels,” in the words of Augustus Radcliffe Grote. But in those days, butterflies were more plentiful than they are today. Walt Whitman described walking down country lanes and seeing “butterflies and butterflies, all sorts, white yellow, brown, purple—now and then some gorgeous fellow flashing lazily by on wings like artists’ palettes dabb’d with every color.”

Today, butterflies are under pressure from loss of habitat and hazards ranging from viruses to birds and parasitic wasps. The latter actually lay their eggs inside caterpillars, which continue to grow for a while–until the wasp larvae hatch and eat the caterpillars from the inside out. Sometimes the caterpillar lives long enough to form a chrysalis. Then, in a scene worthy of science fiction, what emerges from the chrysalis is not a lovely butterfly, but a parasitic wasp. Woe betide anyone who brings home a chrysalis and expects a butterfly to emerge, warned a 1951 butterfly guide. Even a caterpillar rescued from the wild might yield a similar nasty surprise, it cautioned. But that’s not enough to deter me.

I’ve seen too many wasps around my dill this year, landing on the branches and climbing inside the fronds. They could only be searching for one thing, I figured, and that was my little black swallowtail caterpillars.

First or second instars--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowSo when I saw a wasp circling insistently several weeks ago, landing repeatedly on the dill and parsley (which also plays host to black swallowtail caterpillars), I shooed it away over and over again. He looked so huge and menacing compared to the tiny first and second instars (photo, left)—tiny smudges of black at this early stage. I reacted like a mother whose children were under threat. I shooed him away again, then cut off the branches three of the little guys were on and brought them inside to put in a protected container. On the spot, my husband and I formed our own informal, strictly unofficial organization—the Caterpillar Rescue League (CARL)—to help protect this fragile slice of nature.

Caterpillar shedding his skin--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowOver the following weeks, I got to observe my little guys much more closely than when they were outside. I had seen them shed their skins before (left), actually wriggling out of the old ones, which remained behind on a stalk. But what I saw for the first time was how they eat the old skin!

Black swallowtail caterpillar on parsley--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowI had thought that caterpillars born on dill would never cross over to parsley and vice versa, but that proved to be wrong. They moved from dill to parsley after a few days, which proved to be a wonderful thing for me, since parsley lasts much longer. I supplied some of the parsley from my garden. The rest I bought at the market and kept in the fridge until needed. In the morning, I would find myself pulling more parsley out of the refrigerator and warming it up to room temperature before switching it out for the old parsley, like a mother warming a baby’s formula. They seemed to like it just as much as dill, so they became known in our household as the Parsley Pillies (since all our little caterpillars seem to acquire names). You can see in the following video how they got that name. Continued on next page ->

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Tasty Tarragon

Tarragon--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowEvery year, it seems, I try a new herb in the garden that surprises me with the intriguing dimensions of flavor it adds to my cooking. Last year it was oregano, which pepped up our salads in unexpected ways. This year, it’s tarragon, which I never really thought of before as anything other than a slender stalk in vinegar bottles.

Ginger-tarragon dressing--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowHow wrong I was. The French, it seems, were onto tarragon long before I was, designating it one of four essential herbs in their fines herbes and using it as an essential ingredient in Béarnaise sauce. The first time I snipped some into a salad this summer, the burst of flavor was unlike anything I’d ever tasted—with a kapow, zip, and zing that made me sit up a little straighter in my chair. My husband and I have since added it to scrambled eggs and even an herb sauce for fish. (There’s no special recipe for that. My husband just takes handfuls of all the garden herbs—mint, thyme, tarragon, rosemary, oregano, basil—and tosses it all into the blender.)

tarragon ice cream--photo from Bojon GourmetI immediately went in search of tarragon recipes and found a zinger of a salad dressing with tarragon, finely grated ginger, garlic, and chopped scallions (photo, above). But my new aspiration is to make this amazing-looking recipe–Tarragon Olive Oil Ice Cream from The Bojon Gourmet. I rarely post photos that aren’t my own, but this one from Bojon’s site just looked too delicious to pass up!

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Angelonia--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow
This summer has brought me many wonderful plants, among them angelonia (also known as summer snapdragon). It requires remarkably little care. Deadheading? You can forget about it. Just keep them watered, and they’ll reward you with flowers all summer long. They’re heat and drought tolerant and are one of those plants that make my neighbors say, “How do you do it? You have such a green thumb.” No. I have angelonia.

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What’s Wrong With My Basil?

Basil with chopsticks--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowOne of the greatest joys of summer for me is fresh, fragrant basil, so crisp and flavorful that it puts the so-called “fresh” stuff in the market with drooping leaves to shame. My husband and I eat basil all summer long with tomatoes and mozzarella, in pesto, in salads, in soups, in sauces—in just about anything except dessert.

Basil with downy mildew--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowSo when May arrived this year, basil seedlings were among my first garden purchases. Full of hope and anticipation, I bought four little plants with small, robust looking leaves—except for one crinkled yellow leaf, but I paid no attention to that. I assumed that I would just pluck it off, and any new growth would be strong and healthy. Wrong.

Downy mildew--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowMuch to my surprise, what followed wasn’t batch after batch of healthy basil, but one leaf after another than turned yellow or shriveled or simply didn’t look right. When I checked the undersides of the troubled leaves, I invariably saw brown speckling (photo, left). It looked as if dirt had somehow been splashed up onto the leaves during watering, but it appeared too consistently on the diseased leaves for that.

A friend identified the problem as a fungus and suggested that I buy a fungicide. However, I’m leery of such things, because I don’t want to do anything that might harm the bees or butterflies. So instead, I started plucking off the leaves—one after another after another–but to no avail. The contagion continued. Finally I resorted to the only remedy I could think of. I chopped the basil all the way down–stem, leaves, branches–until there were only tiny stubs of stalks left sticking up out of the soil.

Basil flourishing again--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow Eventually strong, beautiful plants grew back (photo, right). But what was this pestilence? I finally got an answer. “Downy mildew,” says plant pathologist Margery Daughtrey of Cornell University. And what should you do when you find it? Unfortunately, fungicides are not much help at this stage. The time to spray is before symptoms appear. Planting basil in full sun can help, especially if you leave space between the plants, so that air can circulate. But the best way to deal with downy mildew is the least welcome: “Uproot the plant and get rid of it,” Daughtrey advises. Then throw away the soil and decontaminate the pots.

For more on downy mildew, click here.

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Rescuing Dilbert (the Caterpillar)

Nature seems to unfold so effortlessly. Flowers bloom, pollinators arrive, caterpillars form their chrysalises and emerge weeks later as splendid butterflies. Well, sometimes it’s that easy. Sometimes it isn’t.

Dilbert on the dill--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowThe second of my black swallowtail caterpillars, whom I dubbed Dilbert, was one of the unlucky ones for whom things did not come so easily. As recounted earlier (“Wake Up and Smell the Dill”), he wandered away from the dill in my container garden to form his chrysalis on a sweltering, 90-degree day. He returned hours later, exhausted and listless. When I came to his rescue and placed him in a container with ample sticks for “stringing up,” he didn’t have the energy to attach himself to a stick, as a black swallowtail caterpillar should do before forming its chrysalis. But to my astonishment, he formed his chrysalis the next night, while lying on the bottom of the container.

DSCN2262Whatever would happen to him? While the chrysalis of my other black swallowtail had immediately turned a dark brown to match the stick he was on, Dilbert’s was a bright green. Was that normal? (Pilly’s coloration had provided perfect camouflage against the dark stick.) And what would happen to Dilbert’s development in this unusual position—on the bottom of the container, rather than strung up? My husband and I feared that the pressure on his body would harm his nascent wings if he continued to lie there, so my husband did the work of stringing him up, gluing the tip of his tail to a stick and making a little sling with thread to support the upper part of his body.

Dilbert's chrysalis--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowA week later, I looked at Dilbert’s chrysalis. Once bright green, it was now black with rows of orange and yellow dots–a sign that he was ready to emerge! I hadn’t been sure if he would have the energy needed for the metamorphosis, but here he was, fully transformed.

Dilbert--newly emerged--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowOver the next couple hours, he did manage to come out of his chrysalis—but not as effortlessly as Pilly had done. Unlike Pilly who had been able to walk around the container while his wings dried, Dilbert flipped and flopped, rolling his wings under him. More worrisome, part of the chrysalis had stuck to his head, covering his eyes and proboscis. How would he be able to see? And eat?

Dilbert-s wings drying--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

DSCN2985As his wings started to spread and harden, I placed a stick in front of him for him to climb onto. As instinctively as a baby wrapping its tiny fist around an adult’s finger, Dilbert grasped the stick, and I lifted him out of the container.

Dilbert drying his wings on my leg--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowHe clung to the stick for the next half hour until he lost his grip and landed—plop!—on my leg. He sat there for the next hour, as I wondered how I was going to explain to my boss why I wasn’t at my desk.

Finally I picked him up on the stick and placed him on the lantana. He fluttered to the ground in between container pots and spent the next half hour or so twitching, then resting, twitching, resting. But he finally did it. With his twisting and turning, he managed to cast off the last bit of the chrysalis. Then he wasted no time and flew away, swooping low to the ground rather than up into the air as Pilly had done. It was a moment of triumph just the same.

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Pilly’s Progress

There are few mysteries as deep as the metamorphosis of a butterfly. Watching a caterpillar shed its skin multiple times and emerge as a little creature with entirely different markings is amazing enough. To see the caterpillar form a chrysalis is even more wondrous. Imagine a person’s skin unzipping and falling to the floor, revealing a suit of armor underneath. That’s how bizarre it is.

Pilly 1 emerges--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowBut nothing is more astonishing than seeing a delicate butterfly emerge from that brittle armor. The chrysalis is only slightly larger than the length and breadth of the butterfly’s body—yet somehow a 4-inch pair of wings is rolled up inside, along with antennae, proboscis, and three pairs of legs.

I witnessed all this for the first time today. It had been a week since Pilly, my “pet” black swallowtail caterpillar, had formed his chrysalis, and I really wasn’t sure when he would emerge. But a slight flutter of black wings in the container, glimpsed sidelong this morning, told me the time had arrived. I removed the gauze that had been covering the container, then settled in to watch Pilly for the next hour, camera in hand.

Pilly 1 emerges--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowTo unfurl those beautiful black wings with its rows of yellow spots, he had to pump each of the prominent veins in them full of fluids, then let the wings harden and dry. As this was happening, he began exploring his old world with his new body. It was no longer lithe and limber, and to make things more awkward, he had wings trailing behind him as he tried to walk along the bottom of the container. But one thing he could do very well, it turns out, was climb up the sticks I had placed in the container last week. He chose one as the ideal wing-drying spot and clung to it for half an hour before deciding it was time to fly away.

To my surprise, getting out of the open container proved difficult. Pilly climbed to the highest end of the stick, but it was leaning against the side of the container, an inch or two shy of the top. Instead of fluttering to freedom, he tried to climb that last inch, but his little legs pawed uselessly against the plastic, gaining no traction. Do insects who have undergone such a metamorphosis have any memory of the past? Did he recall that as a caterpillar he had climbed those plastic sides with ease? And can anything as simple as an insect have a shift of consciousness as he realizes he no longer needs to crawl, but can fly?

He stopped flailing at the sides and fluttered a few times gently—then with more urgency—but still to no avail. It occurred to me that he didn’t yet know how to fly upwards, as his efforts only seemed to be propelling him forward against the side of the container. So I placed another stick between his front legs, this time pointing it straight up into the air. Immediately, he grasped it, and in the blink of an eye, he had climbed to the top and taken wing. A novice flyer, he swooped toward my head. I ducked–then looked up and saw him corkscrew higher and higher in widening circles before he disappeared against the sky.
Pilly 1 emerges--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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The Gift

Cherry tomatoes--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowCall me crazy, but I’m always shocked when people take things from my garden—like half a dozen roses, or entire potted plants, or my garden hose. Lately, of course, it’s the tomatoes. Both the Cherokee Purple heirlooms and the Sun Sugar cherry tomatoes are apparently ripe for pilfering, as I routinely discover when I go out to pick these vine-ripened beauties for the night’s salad or ratatouille. Even the police are not above suspicion. “Nice tomato garden,” said a beat cop to me the other evening. “Thanks, but people are stealing them, “ I replied. To my amazement, the cop said he’d thought about it himself.

“But you’re a cop,” I protested.

Sun Sugar cherry tomatoes--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow“Hey, this is New Jersey,” he said. “We grow great tomatoes.”

But almost every day, something really nice happens, too. While I’m out watering my garden, a puppy will wriggle through the fence to sniff the tomatoes, or I’ll spy a butterfly flitting among the butterfly bushes, or someone will stop to compliment the flowers, or give their children a lesson in herbs and vegetables, or tell me about the glorious gardens their parents used to have in the old country, wherever that might be. “My mother always said she felt closer to God in the garden,” said one stranger who recently. Well said.

The gift--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowBut something really extraordinary happened in late May. A woman I’d never seen before came by while I was watering. “I see you like plants,” she said. “Can I give you mine? I’m moving.” Could she! Would I ever say no to plants? Her friend came by the next day and left a small collection on my stoop, with a little note thanking me for taking them (photo, right). They were mainly struggling houseplants that would need to be nursed back to health. But there was one that I was thrilled to have—chocolate mint.

Chocolate mint has been aptly described as tasting like the mint in Girl Scout cookies. It’s got a strong menthol flavor and releases a mouthwatering aroma when you brush past it. It’s supposed to taste particularly delicious in anything made with chocolate. But it also tastes good in anything you’d use spearmint or peppermint in. I use mine in mint tea, vanilla yogurt, salads, even herb sauces for fish.

I immediately went out and bought a new chocolate mint plant that was younger and healthier and has since then sprawled enthusiastically along my stoop. I’m obliged to pick mint regularly to keep it under control—a pleasure, if ever there was one, for chocolate mint has become, well, my newly minted favorite.

Chocolate mint--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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Wake Up and Smell the Dill

I bought a $30 salad spinner today—for my black swallowtail caterpillar. No, I’m not going to wash him and spin him dry. The large, clear plastic container (minus the inner spinner for greens) is the temporary refuge that I’ve outfitted for him—complete with bunches of fresh organic dill from the market, sticks to climb, and a towel hanging down on the inside to provide a caterpillar version of a rock wall for climbing. This may seem wildly eccentric, but I guarantee you, there’s good reason for it.

Black swallowtail egg on dill--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowThis has been a dicey year for my black swallowtail caterpillars. I’ve had dozens of female swallowtail butterflies visit my dill and parsley to lay their eggs (video, above). In a blur of wings, they alight momentarily, actually tasting the plant with their feet to make sure it will provide good food for their young. Then they flutter close again, curling their abdomens underneath, as if doing miniature crunches, and deposit a perfect little yellow egg on a parsley leaf or dill frond (left).

Black swallowtail caterpillar--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowWithin a week, the eggs will develop into tiny black caterpillars that seem like smudges of dirt unless you look closely. (The white “saddle” stripe around the middle is supposed to contribute to their camouflage, making them look to a predator like bird droppings instead of a yummy treat. Maybe.)

Black swallowtail caterpillar--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowSeveral times in the coming weeks, they will shed their skin and grow—transforming into spikey little black-and-orange caterpillars (whose spikes apparently irritate the mouths of birds that may want to dine on them) before finally turning into plump, juicy green-and-black striped beauties that, despite their striking coloration, blend remarkably well with the dill. If you’re not looking for them, they could easily escape your notice, while they systematically devour the stuff.

Black swallowtail caterpillar that's just moulted--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowOf course, all of this presumes that they don’t first become a tasty meal for a parasitic wasp or fly. Both have apparently been out in force this year, as the attrition rate among my caterpillars has been horrendous. Week after week, I’ve counted dozens of eggs and caterpillars on the parsley and dill, only to have them disappear in the ensuing days.

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Where Have All the Pollinators Gone?

Mason bee house--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowThis summer so far has seen plenty of pests—but an appalling lack of pollinators. My mason bee house (right) still stands empty, waiting for occupants. Honeybees have been as rare as $2 bills. Throughout June, the peppers and eggplants produced dozens of flowers, only to have them wither and fall off without producing fruit.

I’ve heard about scientists who pollinate exotic rare flowers by hand. “Brighamia rockii is a tubular, white, Hawaiian flower that grows on vertical cliff faces,” says Marc Hachadourian, curator of the orchid collection at the New York Botanical Garden. “Its pollinator—a type of hawk moth—went extinct. Now people literally rappel up and down cliffs to hand-pollinate them.” If those daredevils could do it, I figured, so could I—and without mountaineering equipment or risk of death. My husband agreed, so we ran upstairs and grabbed a couple Q-tips, then set to work hand-pollinating our pepper and eggplant flowers.

“And how was that for you?” my friend Anne at 14th Street Garden Center asked, when we told her about our exploits.

Eggplant flower--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowWe all laughed. But in fact, as my husband observed this afternoon, “It’s not easy to do what a bee does.” We both felt incredibly clumsy wielding Q-tips around the anthers of eggplant flowers (left) and pepper blossoms. How were we supposed to know when we had collected enough pollen on the white cotton tip? How were we supposed to know if we had deposited it successfully on the stigma of the next flower? “Some plants are so specialized that they cannot be pollinated by big bees, only little bees,” says Hachadourian. And we were neither.

We’re not the only ones observing this disturbing lack of pollinators this year. My gardening friends in Hoboken share my concern. Other friends in the country with rows and rows of apple and pear trees note that only a fraction of them are bearing fruit so far. So in my tiny realm, I’m trying to make a bee-friendly environment. I’ve steered clear of all pesticides and chemicals that might harm them. I’ve planted borage, lacy phaecelia, and viper’s bugloss (below), all recommended for bee gardens. I have zinnias and angelonia, butterfly bushes and lantana, calibrachoa and roses. Now where are the bees?
Viper's bugloss--photo Anne Underwood Enslow

Late August update: My husband and I are better pollinators than we realized. We managed to produce at least a dozen delicious eggplants and peppers–less than last year’s harvest, but better than nothing. And now we are starting to see more honeybees. At last!

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Good Enough to Eat

It’s been a great season for strawberries, as you can see from these organic beauties. But what’s with the one in the middle?
Strawberries--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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The Rhythms of Life

Photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

Strawberry blossoms

My stepmother is dying. The hospice nurse called to say the end is near. As I water my garden at 6 am before running for the train, I am comforted by the signs of life all around—thick, lush greenery in the midst of the city. I have delicate rose buds, luscious strawberries, cheerful marigold blossoms, fragrant mint, tarragon, and basil, and thick clusters of golden cherry tomatoes. Life continues. And seeds carry the memory from one generation to the next.

I cannot help but recall the words of the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas:
And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

-from the poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”

Strawberries--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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Mosquito Plants

Mosquito plant--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowMarketing is everything—in gardens as in the rest of the economy. Consider this spiky little plant. I would never have given it a second glance in the garden center if not for the fabulous label. But when I spotted the words “Mosquito Plant” with such a catchy picture of an unhappy pest, how could I resist picking it up for closer inspection? Immediately, I got a strong whiff of citrus. In fact, it smelled a lot like citronella—the stuff they put in the candles.

The back side of the label confirmed it—Geranium “Citronella,” it said—though apparently it’s not THE citronella. I never liked the smell of the candles, but these plants seem pleasantly fragrant. I bought four.

Lemon geranium flower--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowBut do they really work? It’s hard to tell, because we’ve hardly seen any mosquitos this summer. (The experts generally give them a thumbs-down in that department.) But I do know that they’re incredibly easy to care for, they produce striking (though infrequent) flowers, and they smell wonderful whenever you water them or even brush past them. “The fresh and dried foliage is used in potpourris,” says the label. No wonder.

Geranium citronella--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowIt turns out that this plant is part of a larger family of scented geraniums—including apple-scented, nutmeg-scented, and rose-scented varieties—whose leaves rather than flowers are used for all kinds of things. In the mid-1800s, writes Dr. Michael Balick in his new book 21st Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature’s Most Powerful Plants, “The French discovered a way to substitute the oil from rose-scented geraniums for attar of roses in perfume making…. Later, Victorian gardeners and herbalists used them in bouquets, potpourris, ointments, poultices, teas, desserts, and wines.”

A little more research revealed that my plants in fact are not related to citronella at all, but are properly known as lemon-scented geraniums. So the marketing may be misleading—and they may do nothing to keep mosquitos at bay—but they’re quite a wonderful discovery anyway. Now, where do I find the cinnamon-scented variety?
Lemon geranium flowers--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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Ladybugs vs. Aphids (Guess Who’s Winning?)

Ladybug in peppers--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowRosebud covered with aphids--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowAs I walked past my pepper plants the other day, I looked down and saw a ladybug.

First thought: “Yay, a ladybug.”

Second thought: “Uh-oh. What is she finding to eat?”

Ladybugs are known as gardeners’ friends because their favorite food is those annoying aphids that eat your plants. I took a closer look, and sure enough, the undersides of leaves on my two pepper plants were lined with aphids. Then a few days later, I saw unopened buds on my rose bushes covered—covered!—in tiny aphids. Clearly, the occasional ladybug was not up to this task. I needed to call in recruits.

Fortunately, you can buy ladybugs by the hundreds and release a small army of them into your garden. According to Organic Control, Inc., which sells them in plastic tubs, each ladybug can devour up to 50 garden pests per day. There are only a few rules: Release them where they’re likely to find food (not a problem in my garden); release them in the evening when they’re unlikely to fly away; and release them after you’ve watered the garden, because they’ll be thirsty, their plastic container being filled with a high-protein food, but no water.

So come evening, my husband and I went outside and tipped out some ladybugs into the basil, others into the peppers, still more into each of the rose bushes. Until then, they’d been kept in the refrigerator to slow down their metabolism, and as a result, they moved sluggishly. But once they were released into a room temperature garden, they became as frisky as ladybugs can be. First they went right for the rims of the containers, which were sprinkled with droplets of water. But much to my amazement, the second thing on their mind wasn’t aphids. It was sex. Continued on next page ->

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What’s Eating My Roses?

Princess Anne roses--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowWhen I started my garden two years ago, I didn’t realize that what I was really planting was a salad buffet for insects—an all-you-can eat, no-cash-down, something-for-everyone, fresh, organic type of dining experience for both good and bad bugs. The more plants I pot, the more insects I seem to draw, as the word spreads among them—“good eats at Anne’s.”

The latest plants to draw unwelcome insect attention are my roses. I planted them in April as bare roots—unpromising clusters of naked roots with nothing but a few sawed-off branches above ground. But plant stock that looked utterly barren in April has since flourished into four miniature bushes with a profusion of new branches, leaves, and roses. No sooner had the tender new leaves emerged than I began to notice little round holes in some of them. Some had so many tiny perforations that they almost looked like lace. Others had been totally devoured, leaving nothing but the stem. Who gave these pests permission to defoliate my new rose bushes? And what pests are they, anyway?

Rose leaf eaten away--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowI called an expert—Jeff Collard of Eberly & Collard Public Relations in Atlanta, the publicist for David Austin Roses, which supplied my beautiful bushes. “Are they the newer leaves?” he asked. Sure enough. It was the tiniest, most tender little leaflets that were suffering the worst predation. “To pests, the new leaves are like spring greens or young arugula to us—fresher, more tender, less bitter,” he says. “They’ll take the older growth, too. But the younger leaves are soft and easy to chew, yet full of nutrients.”

Sawfly--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowBut still the question remained: what pest was treating my rose bushes as the tender salad greens du jour? “How about sawflies?” he suggested. These pesky critters look a lot like bees, except that they don’t do anything useful like pollinate crops. Instead, in the larval phase, their caterpillars dine on your plants. I’d definitely seen a handful of sawflies in the garden, but no sawfly caterpillars. Nonetheless, I went outside for a closer inspection—and there they were.

Sawfly caterpillar--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowI won’t use anything on my garden that’s not organic, so I started by plucking off all the affected leaves. Then I plucked off all the tiny caterpillars I could find and squished them. So sawflies, beware. You can dine on my garden—but now that I know you’re there, it’s strictly at your own peril.

Related posts: Bare Roots Roses
and Ladybugs vs. Aphids (Guess Who’s Winning?)

Darcy Bussell roses--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowDarcy Bussell roses (above), ordered from David Austin Roses

Princess Anne roses from David Austin--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowPrincess Anne roses (above), ordered from David Austin Roses

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My Grandmother’s Peonies

NYBG peonies--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowQuick, what do the following have in common? Moonstone, hot chocolate, eskimo pie, John Harvard, and Madame Butterfly? If you guessed that they’re all varieties of peonies, you’d be correct. They come in a range of hues (John Harvard being crimson, of course). But all are part of an elegant family of old-fashioned flowers, marked by their intoxicating fragrance and lush, pillowy blossoms. The flowers are so appealing that, as a friend says, “It’s almost as if they have a soul.”

Peonies have been on my mind a lot lately—my grandmother’s peonies, to be precise. But these aren’t flowers that bloom only in my memory. These are actual peonies in my garden. Peonies can live to over 100 years old—and last weekend, to my amazement, my aunt gave me some of these treasured family heirlooms.

Grannie Lisbie's peoniesMy grandmother dug up these pink peonies (photos left and below) out of her parents’ garden in Connecticut in 1920 and took them with her to South Salem, NY, as a young bride. That makes them nearly 100–and possibly older. They later moved with her to Washington, D.C. She then gave some to my father, and they made multiple moves with us—to Virginia and ultimately full circle to my parents’ last house in Connecticut, just 15 minutes’ drive from my grandmother’s childhood home. There they stayed when my mother sold the place in 1991. I’ve long regretted that there was no “peony exclusion” in the contract, so that we could take the plants with us. I’ve even thought recently about calling the current owners to see if the peonies are still there.

Then last weekend, my aunt mentioned that she had a whole strip of my grandmother’s peonies in her back yard, and noted in passing she should give some away. I don’t think she meant, “I should give some away right now to whoever happens to be sitting on my porch,” but I immediately jumped at the offer.

Of course, spring is not the ideal season for transplanting them. Fall is best. (Here’s how to do it right.) My new arrivals are looking a little droopy alongside the other peonies I bought earlier this year. But they’re hanging in, like the survivors they are. As my aunt says, “They’re hardy plants.” They can outlive us all.
Grannie Lisbie's peonies--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

To learn more about the care and handling of peonies, click here.
Or, if you just want to admire some of the stunning diversity of peony blossoms, click here. In the photo below are my Bowl of Cream peonies from Monrovia. I won’t be around in 100 years, but I hope these stunning beauties will.
Monrovia Bowl of Cream peonies--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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Spring for Pansies

I am too eager. In my haste for summer and its abundance of flowers, herbs, and vegetables, I tend to put out my basil and eggplant seedlings in April—only to have them stunted by cold snaps. When will I learn? There are flowers for spring, and there are flowers, herbs, and vegetables for summer, and they are not the same.

Tulips in Madison Square Park--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowTulips in New York City--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowFor spring blossoms that really deliver, none can match pansies as far as I’m concerned–at least, not for the urban gardener with limited space. Tulips are glorious in their intense, variegated beauty (photos, left). Hillsides covered in daffodils are spectacular. Hyacinths smell heavenly. Snowdrops are charming.

Pansies in my garden--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowBut none of these fragile beauties have the staying power of pansies. For almost two months now, I have had pansies outside (right), and they’re still going strong, pending summer’s scorching heat.

And here’s an unexpected bonus—you can add them to your salads, as some high-end restaurants do. Unlike tulips or daffodils, pansies are edible. They’re even nutritious, according to James Duke, Ph.D., author of The Green Pharmacy. “They’re one of the best plant sources of rutin,” he says—rutin being an antioxidant that strengthens capillaries and helps prevent bruises and unwanted clotting. In Dr. Duke’s fabulous pharmacy garden in Maryland–divided into 80 sections from Arthritis to Wrinkles–he plants pansies under Heart. As little as a single pansy can deliver a meaningful dose, he says–though whites and yellows are more potent than blues and purples. So if you’re buying them for your salads, Dr. Duke prescribes white or yellow. But if you’re like most of us and you just want them because their cheery blossoms make you happy, any color can be therapeutic. These Pure Light Blue pansies (below) sure work for me!

Pansies in my garden--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

Related post: Pansies–Not Just for Spring Anymore

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Signs of Life

A cold snap once killed the buds on a japonica bush. This was not just any japonica bush, but one at the hermitage where the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh lives. As he writes in his book No Death, No Fear, he initially mourned their loss, yet weeks later, new buds had appeared. “Are you the same as the flowers that died in the frost or are you different flowers?” he asked them. And, as perhaps only a Buddhist monk can claim without seeming crazy, the flowers responded, “We are not the same and we are not different. When conditions are sufficient we manifest, and when conditions are not sufficient we go into hiding.”

Butterfly bush--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow I thought of that passage many times this winter, as I wondered whether spring would bring “sufficient conditions” for my two lovely butterfly bushes—or whether the winter’s polar vortex and the accompanying deep freeze would do them in.

In fact, the winter’s unrelenting cold squeezed the life out of the corner one (photo on the left, from last year). Last weekend I dug it up. The roots—so tenacious in a vigorous plant—yielded without a murmur. Truly, life had passed.

Butterfly bush--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowBut what about the other one (photo on the right, from last year)? A month ago, it looked just as lifeless as the first, until I cut off the end of one branch and found a little bit of green inside—a sign of life. I tried another, twig and then another, with no further signs of encouragement. But then, a few weeks ago, scattered clusters of leaves began appearing on several of the brittle, woody branches. “Get rid of it,” said my husband. “Don’t mess around with it. It may grow, but it will be stunted.” But what about that green inside? What about the tiny leaflets?

In 2005, comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to describe an argument that has emotional appeal and the ring of truth to it—even if the facts contradict. As I looked at my struggling butterfly bush, I decided that it contained a quality I dubbed “plantiness”—containing the essential ingredients of plant life, no matter how tentative.

I did buy a new butterfly bush–two new ones, in fact, to provide food for any bees and butterflies that may be looking for early-season sustenance. But instead of throwing out my old friend, I pruned it and gave it a dousing of fertilizer. And now I will wait for it to make its comeback—when the conditions are sufficient.
Butterfly bush--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowButterfly bush--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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Bare Roots Roses

Knock Out roses--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowMy new rose bushes have arrived—sort of. Last year I bought Knock Out roses, which were touted as everything I thought I was looking for. They were disease resistant, heat tolerant, long blooming, and even “self-cleaning,” meaning that you don’t have to deadhead the wilted blossoms (so fewer thorns in your fingers!). In short, they are perfect—except for one thing. My Knock Out roses last year were hardly a knockout. True, they bloomed from spring to frost, as promised, and added a welcome splash of color to the side of the house (photo at left). But the blossoms were flimsy little things without a whiff of scent that left me longing for honest-to-goodness English roses—the kind that fill English country gardens, climb trellises and arbors, and scent the air with heavy blossoms. The kind that fuel passion.

Bare roots roses from David Austin Roses--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowThis year, I decided to supplement my collection of Knock Outs with some serious roses from a serious grower, David Austin Roses. Now maybe, just maybe, I am reaching beyond my abilities. I decided to be bold and buy the way Austin prefers to sell plants—as “bare roots roses” rather than fully formed plants in containers. When you order bare roots roses, you receive exactly that—a dormant shrub consisting of some seriously pruned stems and a cluster of brown roots, with no leaves or soil attached. It’s far cheaper to buy the plants and ship them that way—and they may even produce stronger plants than ones that arrive fully formed, since you can plant them earlier in the season and let them establish themselves better before the growing season begins.

Signs of life--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowMy collection of bare roots arrived a month ago, and I planted them right away in containers filled with rich organic soil and the pouch of mycorrhizal fungi that Austin included to kick start growth. It’s still hard to imagine how flourishing bushes are going to emerge from these snub-nosed stems. But two of my four new rose bushes have started sending out tiny leaflets–and with them, hopes for some glorious blooms.

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Wasn’t it just days ago that I finally declared it was spring? So what’s with the snow? Seriously, this was just two days after 70-degree weather.
Pansies in snow--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowPetunias in snow--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow
Daffodils in snow--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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When Is It Really Spring?

Hyacinth--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowNarcissus--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow“I planted pansies, so it’s spring now!” declared my sister-in-law on her Facebook page. That was on March 9, during one of the brief lulls between this winter’s brutal cold snaps. The polar vortex was gone, but unfortunately, winter was not. “Make sure you cover them Thursday when it snows,” a friend shot back.

I can’t blame my sister-in-law for trying to will spring into existence. In my lifetime, I can’t recall a year when I was happier to greet the spring—that is, spring that actually feels like spring, not the snowy calendar date that meteorologists told us marked the change of seasons this year.

But now that warm weather is finally coaxing me outdoors, the budding of tulip trees, forsythia, and daffodils fills me with hope. My seeds are planted; new bareroots roses are on the way; tomato cages stand at the ready.

Over the weekend, I made my first trip to the garden store, which felt like a joyful reunion of old friends. My husband and I came home with an armload of hyacinths, narcissus, and pansies—in purple, green, and gold, the colors of Mardi Gras. And a celebration it is, indeed. “Can you just leave the hyacinths in the car?” my husband asked, intoxicated by their heady scent. We are so ready for this day. Welcome, Spring!
Pansies--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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Sweet Amaryllis

Amaryllis--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowThe polar vortex continues to blast the country with single-digit temperatures and sub-zero winds–colder than anything I remember from the winter I spent in Moscow as a student, when it literally snowed every day. It’s more frigid than the week I spent in Reykjavik one January, when long jagged icicles hung off the eaves of the houses. Heck, it’s so cold that Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo moved one of its polar bears inside because it was too cold even for this Arctic native. And though a park spokesperson explained that, as an urban bear, Anana has less blubber than an wild polar bear, that doesn’t change the fact that the weather is just numbingly cold.

Which is all the more reason why I’m delighted with the Starsong amaryllis my colleague Lori sent me for Christmas. It was a mere bareroot bulb in a flower pot when it arrived with growing instructions from the White Flower Farm in Connecticut. But after a couple weeks in my bedroom window, the stalk was shooting up so fast day by day that I suspected I would actually be able to see it grow if I sat there and watched long enough. Then this week, it produced these spectacular blossoms–not plain red like the ones I’ve grown before, but stunning striped blooms that suddenly burst into flower overnight, while I was out of town for a day. If I were a 17th-century Dutch trader, I would stake a fortune on this plant rather than tulip bulbs. In the dead of winter, I can’t imagine anything more dramatic–or more perfect.
Amaryllis--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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“Mums” the Word

Football chrysanthemum--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowGardening introduces you to some curious facts. For example, who knew that chrysanthemums entered the United States through my hometown of Hoboken, NJ? Hoboken is known for many things, including being the birthplace of Frank Sinatra and baseball as played by modern rules. It claims to have had the first brewery in America and still has a frightening ratio of bars to inhabitants. It’s the town where the movie On the Waterfront was filmed with Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint, with all the extras being town residents. My husband and I quickly learned these bits of random information when we moved here. And yet, it’s somehow taken me years to discover the chrysanthemum connection.

In 1798, it seems, a variety of chrysanthemum called “Dark Purple” was imported by Col. John Stevens, a character in his own right. Col. Stevens served in George Washington’s army during the American Revolution, and he purchased the tract of land that later became Hoboken after it was confiscated from a Tory family in punishment for their misaligned loyalties. As the story goes, Col. Stevens thought the mums would make an interesting “attraction” for a park at the north end of the fledgling town. Who would have imagined that two centuries later, every supermarket in Hoboken would sell truckloads of mums each fall for $5.99 a pot? The small, tight flowers are so dense and so uniform that they lack all sense of delicacy or style. It’s hard to imagine them as an attraction of any kind.

Kiku at the NYBG--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowFor that, you have to go someplace special, like the chrysanthemum exhibition that took place in October at the New York Botanical Garden (right). Called “Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Garden,” it was a true attraction, showcasing flowers worthy of royalty. Literally. The Japanese have elevated cultivation of mums to an art and even dubbed the emperor’s throne (and by extension, the monarchy itself) the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Spider mums at the NYBG--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowAs the show demonstrated, not only can these flowers be beautiful and varied, with forms ranging from spiky spider mums (left) to pillowy “incurve” chrysanthemums (below left), with their mounds of large petals curving gracefully toward a center. They can also be coaxed into growing in truly astonishing ways. To create the ozukuri, or “thousand blooms” design, the gardener takes a single cutting from a mature mum and patiently pinches back the tips of branches, so that a profusion of new branches develops. When the plant reaches a certain size, it is then trained to grow over a giant metal form, the gardener tying down the desired shoots to the frame until the branches form a cascade of flowers or even a bridge (below). The resulting creation boasts hundreds, sometimes thousands, of blooms–all from a single plant.

Granted, this is not something I’m ever going to try at home. The New York Botanical Garden cultivated these plants for a full year to achieve this effect. And to coax the flowers into blooming all at once on cue for the show’s opening, they covered them with giant plastic sheeting for all but roughly six hours of daylight.

Incurve chrysanthemum at the NYBG--photo copyright Anne Udnerwood EnslowIn the Japanese garden, other mums are cultivated for a single precious bloom and lined up in perfect diagonal rows, alternating pink, yellow, and white, like the bridle of the emperor’s horse. The design is known as tazuna-ue, or horse bridle.

I will, of course, never attempt such ambitious designs in my humble container garden. But I do treasure the “football chrysanthemum” on my own stoop earlier this fall (top left). It displays grace and elegance, like something you would see depicted on a Chinese silk jacket or a Japanese screen. It’s my own, very small, Hoboken attraction.
Ozukuri at the NYBG--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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The Last Rose of Summer

Last rose of summer--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowLast month I walked past one of the statelier houses on Hudson Street in Hoboken, NJ, my hometown, and was touched by the sight of one last rose in the garden, where the rose bushes had been thick with blossoms just weeks before. It reminded me of the song ‘Tis the Last Rose of Summer, which I recorded in 2009 (singing and playing hammered dulcimer). Click on this link to hear it: ‘Tis the Last Rose of Summer–copyright Anne Enslow and Ridley Enslow (2009).

The melody and lyrics were originally published in Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies, which was issued in “numbers” between 1807 and 1834. The tune was one of 10 on Mary Todd Lincoln’s music box, which is now in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. My husband and I included it on our third CD, Music for Abraham Lincoln: Campaign Songs, Civil War Tunes, Laments for a President.

‘Tis the last rose of summer left blooming alone
All her lovely companions are faded and gone
No flower of her kindred, no rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes or give sigh for sigh.

I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one to pine on the stem
Since the lovely are sleeping, go sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter thy leaves o’er the bed
Where thy mates of the garden lie scentless and dead.

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Sweet potatoes--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowWhat do you do with self-watering containers when winter arrives? You pull up the vegetables, empty out the soil, and pour out the water in the reservoir underneath to prevent the water from freezing, expanding, and damaging the containers. So with temperatures plunging, I finally pulled up my tomatoes, uprooted the basil, dug out the eggplant and made a shocking discovery.

My husband had observed over the summer that some of the tomatoes, which were cracking along the sides, seemed to be getting too much water. I didn’t see how that was possible and routinely pooh-poohed the suggestion. But as I shoveled the last soil out of the largest of my self-watering containers and burrowed down to the plastic cover that sits atop the water tank below, I started noticing that the plants had sent root tips right through the slits in the plastic and into the reservoir below. When I pried the cover loose, I was astonished to see not just wispy little root tips, but a massive mat of tangled roots in the water. My plants, the sneaky little creatures, weren’t just supping. They were mainlining water—overdosing on it, in the case of the tomatoes.

Next I turned my attention to uprooting the sweet potato vines, basil, mint, marigolds, and sorrel in my other self-watering containers. They, too, had sent their roots down deep into the reservoir, making these plants a whole lot more challenging to pull up than plants in regular containers. No wonder they seemed so happy.

But the biggest chuckle of the day came when I found the actual sweet potatoes among the roots of my decorative vines. Large and ruby red, they looked like lips ready to give a Valentine’s Day kiss. Pucker up!
Sweet potatoes from decorative vines--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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Confessions of a Pesto Addict

Genovese basil--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowIn one heartbreaking act of finality today, I chopped down the last of my basil. It was time. The bottom leaves were turning yellow, and it was only a matter of who would claim the remaining basil first–me or the advancing chill of autumn.

But for me, the end of the basil marks more than just the steady approach of winter. It also heralds the end of freshly made pesto–an event that I regard with the panic of a depressive patient whose therapist is leaving town for vacation. Yes, I know we’re all supposed to cherish local, seasonal food. If a fruit or herb isn’t plucked fresh from a nearby farm, we’re supposed to turn up our noses and pass it by until next year. But over the summer, I think I became a pesto addict, even slathering it onto crackers for snacks. (Hint: If you’re going to eat it this way, use only a small amount of oil when you make it. You can add oil later when you mix it into your pasta.) For months, my husband and I have had pesto at least once a week on fettucine, on fish, on tomatoes. Heck, we’ve had so much, it’s almost become a basic food group.

Genovese basil--photo copyright Anne Underwood EsnlowMind you, as addictions go, it’s not a bad one. It won’t land you in jail, or even make you lose your senses, except for that brief, heady moment when you dip your spoon into the Cuisinart and take your first little bite of the latest batch. No matter how often I repeat the ritual, it still brings me intense joy. In fact, it often requires a second taste–to establish the characteristics of the new batch versus the previous one, you know. Did I add too much garlic? Better take another taste. Does the purple basil work as well in pesto the traditional Genovese basil? Maybe another little nip.

The prospect of a long winter without the spicy, rich tang of fresh pesto makes me sad. But I will just have to ease my withdrawal symptoms with the supply in the freezer–and hope that next summer’s bounty tastes all the more welcome after a lengthy absence.

Related Post: Pesto!

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Cosmic Details in Nature

Francine Demeulenaere--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow“I’m a city girl from Paris,” declares artist Francine Demeulenaere. “But I woke up one day two years ago with a dream in my head. It was so clear in my mind, this sentence: If each person in the world could plant four fruit trees, in five years there would be 28 billion fruit trees on the planet.” That’s billion with a “b.”

It was an idea she couldn’t shake, so she decided to start planting her own four. But where? She was living in a small apartment in New York City and renting an art studio in Hoboken, NJ, across the river. Neither one included land. Her studio did, however, have a wall of west-facing windows that let in plenty of light. Demeulenaere decided to turn her studio into a place for both painting and planting.

Francine's studio--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowTo say that she has full-fledged trees now would be an exaggeration. “It takes five years on average to grow a fruit tree and I only started two years ago,” she says. But she has two enormous tables, groaning under dozens of heavy pots full of shoots, saplings, and cuttings from exotic plants—lemon trees, orange trees, passionfruit, peach trees, even pineapple—not to mention a grapevine, lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, peppers, lavender, rosemary, thyme, mint, Thai basil, marjoram, and a “rescue plant” she can’t identify. All together, it creates the impression of a small jungle. “Here I have two seasons,” she jokes. “Summer and when the heating comes on.”

For Demeulenaere, almost any fruit or vegetable on her dinner plate becomes a source of potential seeds. Even her sprawling pineapple plant was a do-it-yourself job. (Want to try it? Cut off the leafy crown of a fresh pineapple, strip the bottom leaves to reveal the stem, then stick the whole thing stem-down in water for a couple weeks until it forms roots a couple inches long. Then plant in sandy, well-drained soil.)

Studio tour posterBefore long, Demeulanaere’s plants came an artistic inspiration, as she started to notice that certain patterns in nature repeated. The cosmos in all its grandeur, she found, formed a mirror image of the tiniest details of her plants. For example, the closer she zoomed in on the center of a daisy, the less it looked like a colored pad anchoring petals and the more it resembled like the Milky Way. She began taking photos of her plants—so close up you would be hard pressed to identify any individual parts—then superimposing a piece of glass onto which she paints dots, creating a three-dimensional image that does indeed look cosmic.

The 18th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal, she says, noted the similarities of the microscopic and infinite and has become her inspiration with quotes like this: “By space the universe encompasses me and swallows me up like an atom.” And this: “Nature is an infinite sphere of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.”

As she says, “It makes me think that nature has an intelligence and is telling us something that we are not seeing because we are so disconnected from the natural world. But what if everybody could grow something in their homes? Then maybe we could reconnect with nature and able to live in harmony with nature instead of against it.”

Her studio is on the artists’ studio tour this Saturday and Sunday in Hoboken.

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The Rescue Caterpillar

Hemaris thysbe caterpillar--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowI know it sounds like a children’s story, but this is no tall tale. It’s the story of how I ended up with a rescue caterpillar. Seriously.

My father-in-law has been following my exploits with black swallowtail caterpillars. So when he saw a green caterpillar, nearly frozen on the sidewalk during a recent cold spell, he scooped it up into a paper cup and gave it to my husband to bring home to me. There was a Post-It note attached to the cup: “This is my caterpillar, Binky. Please take care of him.”

Compared with my handsome, colorfully striped swallowtails, I must admit that Binky seemed very ordinary. He was large and lumbering, with no distinctive markings, except for some barely noticeable diagonal yellow stripes—a workaday type of caterpillar compared with my lithe, delicate swallowtails. As I picked up the cup and peered inside, Binky began scratching at the cup with three powerful little pairs of forelegs, each of which had a tiny claw at the end. What was I going to do with this creature?

Hemaris thysbe moth--photo copyright Danny Bales

Hummingbird clearwing moth; photo by Danny Bales

I went to the Internet and began trying to figure out what type of caterpillar he was. It didn’t take long to identify him as a Hemaris thysbe. “Hmmph,” I thought, “what’s that?” But when I looked it up, I was wowed. Hemaris thysbe is a moth, commonly known as the hummingbird clearwing—a name derived from the transparency of the central part of each of its wings, plus its tendency to hover over a flower like a hummingbird while it sups nectar. As for the colored portion of the wing, it’s a deep, rich burgundy, while the upper part of its back is shaded a contrasting olive green. It was far more handsome than any moth I’d never seen before—certainly much more attractive than the little brown and grey guys that eat holes in my sweaters.

I found all kinds of curious factoids about this moth. The central part of the wing is clear because the scales fall off as the young moth begins to fly. It has no equivalent of ears. It migrates. Instead of overwintering as a chrysalis like my swallowtails, it overwinters as a caterpillar by burrowing into the ground. Fascinating.

But what was I going to feed him? As it turns out, the clearwing caterpillar feeds on all kinds of exotic things, like cherry trees, European cranberry bushes, hawthorns, and snowberry—none of which were available. (What’s a snowberry, anyway?) Then I saw that both the caterpillar and moth like honeysuckle. Bingo!

Hemaris thysbe caterpillar--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowI happened to know a fence in town where there was still some honeysuckle in bloom, so my husband and I raced over immediately to pick some. I put our cuttings in a container, along with moistened paper towels and a variety of other leaves and flowers (just in case I’d misidentified Binky). In the morning, I found him curled around the honeysuckle. He’d even taken a poop, which I took as a good sign. At least I would have some progress to report to my father-in-law.

The day after, however, when I opened the lid of the container, Binky was nowhere to be found. Where could he have gone? I pulled out the honeysuckle. There was no sign of him. I removed the angelonia, the lantana, the basil. Not a trace. Then I peeked under the moistened towels. There he was. “Aha,” I thought. “He’s trying to burrow.”

I took the container back over to the field where I’d collected the honeysuckle and emptied its contents next to the fence. To my amazement, he immediately began to dig. Those tough little claws began scratching at the ground, and in less than a minute, the front half of his body had already tunneled down into the dirt, leaving his back half sticking out. Another minute later, that too was gone. I sat there, blinking at the spot where Binky had been just moments before.

I walk past that spot every day on my morning walk. Sometime next spring, if I’m very lucky, maybe I’ll catch a glimpse of a handsome moth. In the meantime, I’ll just watch this video.

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Azaleas–The New Fall Flowers?

Stoop garden--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowDenial. That’s the official term for refusing to believe what is perfectly obvious—that fall has arrived, and winter is on its way. That’s also a partial explanation for why there are still spring flowers on my stoop—azaleas, pansies, dianthus. Never mind that other houses up and down the block are decked with pumpkins and golden chrysanthemums. At other homes, Halloween hobgoblins and giant spider webs may prevail, along with mock tombstones bearing spooky inscriptions like “Out to lunch.” (Think about it.) But on my stoop, spring still reigns.

Dianthus, azalea, pansy--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowI suppose I should let my garden age gracefully, like a dignified woman allowing wisps of silver to crown her face and gentle lines to reveal the years of smiles and cares. But, no. Nurseries have enabled this version of horticultural self-deception, and I’m taking full advantage of it. Pansies naturally thrive in shorter days and cooler weather, whether it occurs in spring or fall, so they’re easy to coax into bloom. Other plants have been specially bred for the purpose. The dianthus on my stoop—a cross between Sweet William and traditional dianthus—produces a hardier blossom that can flower through the summer and into the autumn.

Autumn Debutante azalea--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowBut most astonishing to me is the Autumn Debutante azalea that I was given at the Garden Bloggers Conference a month ago. To me, azaleas are shrubs that bloom for a few weeks in the spring and then flame out. An autumn-blooming azalea is a complete contradiction in terms. Yet my Autumn Debutante has kept right on blooming for the last month, even as the mercury plunges.

How is this possible? The answer is deceptively simple: you just cross a standard azalea with a “repeat-blooming” variety that flowers in other seasons, too. The problem is finding such a plant–and creating viable hybrids. “Azaleas aren’t native to North America,” says Buddy Lee, who bred the Autumn Debutante, along with the 28 other “autumn” varieties offered by Encore Azaleas. The varieties in this country are all spring bloomers. But Lee was fortunate enough to be given a rare summer-blooming azalea from Taiwan. He set about crossing it with other varieties that have different size leaves, larger or smaller blossoms, a range of colors, and different degrees of hardiness. As he says, “I created 9,000 seedlings, using pure plant breeding with cross pollination—not the Frankenstein type.”

But a great seedling needs someone to market it. Lee brought his cache to Plant Development Services Inc., which grew up to 300 plants from each seedling to determine whether that variety could make it as a commercial plant. Did it have a pretty bloom color? Did it grow well? Was it easy to propagate? “Lots didn’t make the cut, got dumped,” says Aimee Coker of Plant Development Services. “It took 15 years to introduce the first five varieties.” That was in the late 1990s. Now there are 29—all with the name “autumn” in them, to emphasize that they’re not just spring bloomers.

Autumn Debutante azalea--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowThe beauty of the autumn azalea series is that it blooms in spring, summer, and fall. In my urban garden, where space is at a premium, every plant has to produce. The Autumn Debutante passes the test—and is even attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds. Just remember not to trim it in late spring or early summer, or else you will be trimming off the new shoots that produce the buds. And give it plenty of sun, water, and fertilizer during the growing season, tapering off before the first frost. “They take a lot more sun than normal azaleas (4 yo 6 hours of direct sunshine a day), because they’re blooming more,” says Lee. (See care tips here.) Better yet, he adds, “The more mature they get, the more they bloom. As they establish, they can really put on a show.” I can’t wait to see it.

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Garlic Galore

Turkish red garlic--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowHalloween may be coming, but we won’t have any vampires in Hoboken—not judging by the garlic festival sponsored over the weekend by the Hoboken Historical Society. Two long tables were laden with exotic varieties—including Turkish red, French red, Spanish roja, German white, Calabria, Ozark, Ukrainian, and the whimsically named Music–all grown at Catalpa Ridge Farm in Wantage, NJ. There was even a garlic that isn’t a true garlic at all. Elephant garlic is a leek that grows a large bulb. Who knew? There were also garlic dips and garlic jelly, garlic vinegar and a station where you could vote for your favorite garlic variety.

French red garlic--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowWhether you prefer Ozark garlic or you’re a Calabria enthusiast, the timing of the festival was perfect. As the saying goes, you plant garlic on Columbus Day and harvest on the Fourth of July—which was exactly what I had hoped to do this year. That was before the squirrels dug up all my Spanish roja. Sigh.

At Sunday’s festival, in a triumph of hope over experience, I bought some Music and elephant garlic to plant. But this year, I’m going to try covering the planters with chicken wire to keep out the squirrels.

Whether or not I can outsmart the critters, there’s one thing we can definitely ward off. Before we left, my husband quickly scrawled the sign below and left it in a basket of German white garlic.
Vampire-free zone--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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Flying with Flowers

Autumn Debutante azalea--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowI knew that airport security would pull me over, and they did. I was flying home from the Garden Bloggers Conference in Atlanta with an azalea in my suitcase—yes, an actual shrub—and the round pot, filled with damp soil, must have looked like a bomb to the pair of agents screening the carry-on luggage. “Is this your bag?” the TSA officer said to the gentleman behind me, as soon as my suitcase had gone through the scanner. “No, it’s mine,” I volunteered. “It’s a plant.”

A look of relief crossed the agent’s face—then a smile, as I opened my suitcase, revealing the deep green foliage and soft, pink blossoms. She still had to wipe down my luggage, looking for explosives, but this was clearly the highlight of her workday. Her whole demeanor softened. “Have a good flight,” she said, waving me cheerfully on.

Autumn Debutante azalea--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowI’ve never tried flying with flowers before, and I don’t recommend it. But when you’re at a garden conference, and every attendee is given an azalea, what are you going to do? To my amazement, it’s not actually that hard to pack a plant–at least, not a sturdy one like an azalea. I simply bundled it into my suitcase, wrapping a plastic laundry bag from the hotel around the pot, so that dirt wouldn’t spill out onto my clothes. Then I stuffed my clothes around it, trying to cushion the shrub from the inevitable bumps.

Eight hours, two cab rides, and one airplane flight later, the azalea emerged from my suitcase—a little worse for the stifling and parched trip, but still alive. Now, three weeks later, you’d never guess how many petals were crushed en route. My azalea, as you can see, is thriving.

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Caterpillar Mamma

As they say, no good deed goes unpunished. When an adorable little black swallowtail caterpillar appeared one day on the late-summer remains of my dill, I dubbed him Pilly the Kid and began looking out for his welfare–making trips to the market to buy him fresh dill, and rescuing him after he wandered off and failed to find his way back to the dill in the morning. Then one fine day he wriggled into an inaccessible spot to form his chrysalis. I thought that was the end of my caterpillar nurturing days. Uh, huh.

The Friday before Labor Day, I came outside and found that mamma butterfly had been visiting my dill again, with surprising results. I ran off to buy a fresh batch of dill for the new arrivals, before emailing my neighbor, Jane, who had agreed to plant-sit for the holiday: “I know you only signed up for plant-sitting, not caterpillar-sitting, but ….” You can see the bundles of joy that mamma butterfly left, in this video I posted to YouTube.

Yes, I was adoptive mamma to six ravenous caterpillars, who rapidly grew into the guys you see here. If my first caterpillar was Pilly, these became the Dillies—Piccadilly, Dillsworthy, Dillard, Dill Pickles, Peccadillo, and Dilbert. (Just don’t ask me to make a firm identification of any of them.) Unfortunately, an early cold snap carried off two. I found their shriveled little bodies the next morning, after the temperature had sunk below 40 degrees. A third wandered off and never made it back. When I found him, the ants were already congregating around his tiny corpse. What can I say? The attrition rate is high in the insect world. So here’s how crazy I am: I went to the store and bought a fancy, vented lettuce crisper that was big enough to accommodate the remaining three Dillies and their container of fresh dill, so I could bring them safely indoors at night when the mercury plummeted.

When Piccadilly, Dillsworthy, and Dilbert were ready to form their chrysalises, I made each of them a separate container with a choice of sticks. Here’s Piccadilly stringing up, spinning the slender silk thread that will act as a sling, keeping him suspended from the stick when he forms his chrysalis. I watched, amazed, since the silk seemed to appear from nowhere–which is pretty much exactly what happens. According to Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry, caterpillars spin the same way spiders do, secreting liquid silk from a little tube called a “spinneret” on the lower side of the mouth; then, as the liquid silk makes contact with the air, it turns into a solid filament. But how does a caterpillar do it upside down? And twisted into such crazy positions?

Black swallowtail chrysalis--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowRoughly a day after stringing up, each one shed its skin, leaving the pupa underneath (photo, left; check out the discarded ball of skin on the bottom of the container). Each time, it was apparently a very quick process, since I missed it in all three cases, despite keeping their containers on my desk that day, so I could regularly glance over from my computer (a distinct advantage to working from home–don’t try this in the office).

All of which is very well and good. But one thing was bugging me. What would happen to my caterpillars if they emerged as butterflies a few weeks later, only to find that food was scarce and the season was too cold? How would they survive? That’s when I learned about “diapause,” the insect equivalent of hibernation. Metabolism slows, and their bodies produce a sort of “anti-freeze” to protect them. Every butterfly species has a stage of development in which it can enter diapause for winter survival. For some, it’s the caterpillar; for others, the chrysalis. In the case of black swallowtails, it’s the latter, so I have a long wait before I see any of my butterflies emerge. But thanks to Pilly, I know just where to put the Dillies for safekeeping in the interim. Pilly chose the ledge under the awning as the perfect spot for an overwintering caterpillar, so today I climbed up on the ladder and left the Dillies on this secluded ledge, where they’ll be protected from snow and rain, but can easily fly away when the time comes.

My husband has even named the new chrysalis commune. We’re calling it Pilly-delphia.

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Fungus Fest

Fungus Fest--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowWhen I first planted my container garden, I naively thought that I would get to decide what grew there. After all, I wasn’t trying to reclaim some weed-choked lot, but was starting from scratch with pristine containers. Little did I know. Nature had her own designs on my space, and they didn’t necessarily coincide with my own. First grasses started popping up, then the inevitable weeds. Then this summer, I suddenly found my euonymus pots brimming with yellow and white mushrooms–not to mention the pink and grey fungi that materialized amidst my parsley. What the heck are these things? It’s been bugging me all summer.

That’s why I was so excited to see a poster for Fungus Fest, sponsored last weekend by the New Jersey Mycological Association. The poster promised plenty of fun and learning opportunities: “Exhibits and talks,” “guided mushroom walks,” “mushroom cooking demos,” “mushroom arts and crafts,” and, most exciting of all, “your mushrooms identified (bring your mushroom finds!).” Of course, I had to go–and I was lucky enough to snag mycologist Gary Lincoff of the New York Botanical Garden long enough to look at my photos and give me a couple quick IDs.

Leucocoprinus birnbaumii--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowLeucocoprinus birnbaumii--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowLincoff instantly fingered this guy in my euonymus pots as Leucocoprinus birnbaumii. He offered no further information, so when I got home, I took that name and plugged it into Google. Up popped multiple descriptions of what is apparently an exceedingly common mushroom in container gardens–so common that it’s acquired many common names, including “yellow parasol,” “flowerpot parasol,” and most ingloriously, “yellow houseplant mushroom.” (These two photos are of the same type of mushroom, but the ones on top have not yet opened.) Michael Kuo, author of the book 100 Edible Mushrooms, has this to say about it on his website (the emphasis is mine): “This little yellow mushroom is the subject of many frantic e-mails to MushroomExpert.Com, since it has a tendency to pop up unexpectedly in people’s flower pots–even indoors! Leucocoprinus birnbaumii won’t hurt you, unless you eat it. It won’t hurt your plant. It won’t hurt your pets or your children, unless they eat it. There is no getting rid of it, short of replacing all the soil in your planter (and even then it might reappear).” Yes, this tenacious fungus is poisonous, so don’t be tempted to harvest it. But at least it won’t harm the plants–and may even help by breaking down organic matter in the soil.

Lycogala epidendrum slime mold--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowAnd this guy? Not a fungus at all, says Lincoff, but a slime mold! This one is called Lycogala epidendrum, or Groening’s slime, and it’s apparently common in the temperate zone. It’s not looking particularly slimy in this picture, but that’s because of its stage of development. For most of its life, it will be a single-celled, amoeba-like blob that actually moves around, engulfing bacteria, spores, and non-living organic matter. “People have put them in mazes and found they will move through the maze,” says slime mold enthusiast Phil Layton, president of the New Jersey Mycological Association. But at some point, when it’s time to replicate, these single-celled organisms aggregate by sending out chemical signals to their fellow plasmodia to come together and form a mushroom-like “fruiting body” that will disperse spores. At this stage, it resembles a fungus, which is why slime molds were classified as fungi for a long time.

With the dry weather we’ve been having lately, my fungus problem seems to be under control. We’ll see how long that lasts….

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Perfect Pollinators

This "corpse flower" in the Berkeley Botanical Garden lived up to its name in 2009, delivering a gut-churning smell.

I was treated to a rare, after-hours viewing of this 5-foot-tall “corpse flower” in the Berkeley Botanical Garden in 2009. It lived up to its name, delivering a nauseating stench.

Two months ago, while half the international press corps was on Royal Baby Watch, an equally fervent, if smaller, vigil was underway at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. This rival watch was not for the birth of a little prince, but for the blooming of one of the garden’s four giant Amorphophallus titanum plants–better known as a “corpse flower,” for the odor it produces on those rare occasions when it blooms: the smell of rotting flesh. Is it disgusting? Totally. Nauseating? Yup. Irresistible? You bet. “People are drawn to this for the same reason they like horror movies,” says Paul Licht, director of the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley in California. “We like to feel intense emotions, whether fright or revulsion, as long as we know that we can walk away safely afterward.”

In 2009, Licht treated me to an after-hours viewing of a just-opened corpse flower at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden (photo above). Of course, he reminded me, the plant doesn’t produce this olfactory extravaganza to supply us with thrills and chills. It does it to attract pollinators–in this case, flies and carrion beetles, which are drawn to the plant as irresistibly as to a dead cow. “This plant can spend decades getting ready to bloom,” he says. “Then it has less than 24 hours to be pollinated.” After that, the flower collapses.

Beetle and daisy--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowFortunately for my neighbors, I have no plants that stink of rotting flesh. So how, in one of the nation’s most densely populated areas, paved with concrete, do the flowers in my garden manage to attract butterflies and bees? And why do pollinators visit certain plants, but not others? As it turns out, the clues are all there, if only you know what to look for. When it comes to pollination, says horticulturist and orchid curator Marc Hachadourian of the New York Botanical Garden, “You can read a flower, judging by its shape, color, texture, and smell.” So let’s try:

What pollinates a daisy? It’s not that hard to find the clues. “Everything you see on a flower is about sex,” says Hachadourian. “It’s a way of saying look at me.” And the daisy is anything but subtle. The petals form a series of rays pointing right to the center. In insect language, this might as well be a flashing neon arrow, guiding insects to the local diner. And there’s easy parking, so to speak, when they arrive. The center of the flower is a flat landing pad–perfect for a rotund, rather clumsy beetle (above), while also accessible to other insects. The result? Rather than attracting a single pollinating species, the daisy can be pollinated by beetles, bees, wasps, and butterflies.

Ballerina Blaue fuchsia--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowWhat pollinates fuchsia? At a glance, it’s easy to tell that this flower is too complicated for a simple beetle to navigate. However, its pendulous blossom, with its long tubular “nectary,” is perfect for a hummingbird to dip in its slender, curved bill. Fuchsia makes it easy for the hummers to find their target: The flower’s pistil and stamens dangle alluringly beyond the ends of the petals, forming a series of lines that point toward the center, “like the lights of a runway,” says Hachadourian. And lest there be any mistaking fuchsia’s intent, its brilliant magenta hue is a hummingbird magnet. By the way, the absence of fragrance doesn’t matter a whit. Hummingbirds aren’t drawn to fragrance.

Cabbage white butterfly on butterfly bush--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowWhat pollinates a butterfly bush? OK, this is a no-brainer. The name says it all–and my two butterfly bushes have been very popular this summer with cabbage white butterflies, red admirals, and black swallowtails. But they’ve also been regular hives of activity for both bumblebees and honeybees. “Examples of one-plant, one-pollinator are rare,” says Stephen Buchmann, international coordinator of the Pollinator Partnership and co-author of The Forgotten Pollinators. The butterfly bush’s heady scent is a major draw to many insects, so it’s worth what Buchmann calls “a costly investment in advertising” for the plant to produce it. The petals, he says, serve as “scented billboards.”

Bee pollinating calibrachoa--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowWhat pollinates a petchoa? This petchoa–a cross between a petunia and calibrachoa–hangs on a railing in my garden. Like petunias, petchoas are pollinated by a variety of insects. They don’t have much of a scent, but with their brilliant colors, that doesn’t seem to matter. For at least five minutes one day, I watched bumblebees flit from one blossom to the next. Each time a bee would land on a blossom, then splay its legs all the way out to the sides of the petals for balance before plunging its head down into the center. How did it know where to find the nectar? I’d never paid attention to this feature of the flowers before. But once I looked closer, it was obvious. The center of each red, pink, or purple blossom is a contrasting bright yellow.

Now, for the advanced test: What pollinates Darwin’s Star Orchid–a rare night-blooming orchid with a 12-inch nectar spur? “Darwin theorized that it was pollinated by a moth with a tongue 12 inches long,” says Hachadourian. It was a logical guess–a moth, because the plant blooms at night when moths are out, and the long tongue, because how else could the moth reach the nectar? By the way, the orchid is white, because it would be pointless for a night-blooming plant to waste energy on producing colors. “The public thought Darwin was mad,” says Hachadourian. “Forty years later he was proven right. With a 4-inch wingspan and footlong tongue, the Xanthopan morganii praedicta hawk moth of Madagascar has the longest tongue relative to body ratio of any animal in the world.”

My flowers and their pollinators may be much more ordinary–garden variety, you might say. But they still fill me with awe. Petchoa--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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Simple, but Scrumptious

The beginnings of a great dish--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowThe week my husband and I spent at my aunt’s beach house in Connecticut was amazing for many reasons, not the least of which was the position of her little bungalow, just yards away from the ocean. With its pounding surf and ocean breezes all day and night, it was immensely soothing. But we also ate very well. The photo above shows the beginnings of a favorite new dish we came up with almost by accident, when we cooked up what we had on hand. Just sauté the best tomatoes you can find (these came from a local farmer’s market) with broccolini, scallions, fresh garlic, and white wine, plus salt and pepper to taste. It’s amazing. Below: A takeout shack called Lobster Landing, and a second cup of morning joe. All three meet our definition of “simple, but scrumptious.”
Lobster Landing in Clinton, CT--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowMorning music--and second cup of coffee--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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Mohonk Mountain Magic

Mohonk Mountain House
Admittedly, it hardly qualifies as “urban gardening” when you have hundreds of acres to plant in the crisp, clear setting of New York’s Shawangunk Mountains. But the gardens at Mohonk Mountain House are always spectacular. This year was no exception–and may even hold some ideas for your own garden.

Foxglove at Mononk


Serrano dahlia at Mohonk

Serrano dahlia

Edinburgh dahlia at Mohonk

Edinburgh dahlia

Purple hyacinth beans at Mononk

Purple hyacinth beans, an heirloom variety (planted as early as 1804 by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello)

Vanilla spoon at Mohonk

Vanilla spoon flower, with its unusual spoon-shaped petals

Mingus Gregory dahlias at Mohonk

Mingus Gregory dahlias

Sentimental Sunrise begonias at Mohonk

Sentimental Sunrise begonia. You can eat the petals–they taste lemony!

Fishnet Stockings coleus at Mohonk

Fishnet Stockings coleus

Kelvin Floodlight "dinner plate" dahlias at Mohonk

Kelvin Floodlight dahlia, a giant variety known as a “dinner plate” dahlia for its size

Water lilies on the lily pond at Mohonk--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

Water lilies on the lily pond

Solanum quitoense from Ecuador--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

Solanum quitoense (naranjilla) from Ecuador. Check out those spikes on both the top and bottom of the leaves.

Indigo Rose tomatoes at Mohonk--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

Indigo Rose tomatoes–a new (and very deep purple) hybrid from Oregon

Ballerina Blau fuchsia at Mohonk--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

Ballerina Blau fuchsia

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Mr. Wilkinson’s Vegetables

Radish, Fig, Walnut, Blue Cheese Salad--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow
MrWilkinsonsCoverCorners1-225x300The words “roasted” and “cucumbers” don’t usually go together–unless, that is, you’re the Melbourne-based chef Matt Wilkinson. But that’s why his cookbook, Mr. Wilkinson’s Vegetables: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Garden, is such a joy. It truly is a celebration of garden-fresh produce, making me want to grow every vegetable in this book, from fennel to stinging nettles. (Well, maybe not the nettles. I fell out of a tree into a patch of them once. That fulfilled my lifetime quota for nettle exposure–though I’m sure, as Mr. Wilkinson says, they make a lovely soup.)

Nettles aside, this book has some of the most intriguing, most sophisticated fare I’ve seen in a long time. Mr. Wilkinson’s idea of preparing vegetables is not to smother them in cheese, as so many chefs do, but rather to bring out their natural flavors and complement them with herbs and spices that make your mouth feel alive. Take those roasted cucumbers. You sauté them to a golden brown (another pair of words that I never thought could apply to cucumbers), then fold them into a delicious dish with quinoa, mint, watercress, golden raisins, almonds, and sunflower seeds.

Also incredible is his Salad of Radish, Figs, Walnuts & Blue Cheese (above), with a homemade mustard dressing. It blends flavors I’d never dreamed of combining (blue cheese and mustard–really?). Yet somehow the figs tie the flavors together in surprising ways.

Romesco sauce--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowHis romesco sauce (right) is so awesome we scooped it up by the chipful and ate it as a dip. And the crispy Horseradish Wafers with Parmesan cheese were gone in a few hours. But my favorite recipe so far is his Spicy Eggplant Braise. Think ratatouille with Indian spices. Mind bending, right? It’s amazing.

I haven’t hit a dud in this book yet. And it’s even making me look forward to the winter, when we will have parsnips and the most amazing looking onion soup. (How can you go wrong with a soup recipe that includes brandy, port, red wine, and white wine?) Now I only wish Mr. Wilkinson would write volume 2.

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Metamorphosis Begins!

Pilly finds the railing--photograph copyright Anne Underwood EnslowPilly on the railing--photograph copyright Anne Underwood EnslowPilly on the railing--photograph copyright Anne Underwood EnslowEver since I found a black swallowtail caterpillar in my dill, I’ve been obsessed with the tiny creature and even given him a name–Pilly the Kid. Now Pilly’s moved on to the next phase of his mysterious life. Late last week, I saw that he would soon be forming a chrysalis, so I went outside to keep an eye on him all afternoon, as he searched for a suitable spot. It was exhausting (for me, and I’m sure for him) as he inched his way along the stoop, over the railing, back along the stoop, and up the wall. Curiously, through this vigil, I had the odd sensation I wasn’t the only one monitoring his progress. As I sat there, a female black swallowtail butterfly swooped over again and again–the first time I’ve seen one in a month. She repeatedly visited Pilly’s patch of dill while he was climbing the wall (photo, below).

I suspected that Pilly was trying to get back to the awning where he had spent the night, but he seemed lost. Four hours later, when I could no longer stand his futile attempts, I finally scooped him up onto a chop stick and gently deposited him on the awning, where he soon crawled into a protected spot between the ledge over the cleaners and the awning that curves over the top of the ledge. It’s not a great place for observation. But I must hand it to the little guy. That spot is very well protected, while still allowing him space to spread his wings and fly when the time comes.

Pilly and Mom(?)--photograph Anne Underwood EnslowMy husband and I borrowed a 10-foot ladder from our landlord, so we could climb up to Pilly’s new digs and make sure he was OK. (You can imagine trying to explain that one to the landlord. “No, there’s no problem. Yes, the apartment is fine. You see, there’s this caterpillar…”) Anyway, Pilly seems to be doing exactly what he’s supposed to, though the process is surreal. For two days, the squirmy, colorful little guy didn’t budge, while his body was secreting the enzymes that would literally split the skin down his back, leaving the hard armor of the pupa underneath. It’s odd to see him now, encased in a rigid, brown chrysalis. But I know that a lovely creature will emerge–and when he does, at least he will have some food. The butterfly bushes are still in bloom. And I’ve bought a large lantana plant, which I’m told is good butterfly food. And now, the wait continues…..

In the meantime, I keep anxiously watching this wonderful slide show I found online of a black swallowtail’s metamorphosis, to reassure myself that all is well.

Related posts :
On my discovery of Pilly: Beetles and Snails and Mites, Oh My!
On Pilly’s antics: The Secret Life of a Caterpillar

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What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Marigolds--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowTake a good look. What’s wrong with this blue cloisonne vase full of enchanting marigolds? It’s a trick question, really, because the vase and the flowers are fine. What’s not fine is the reason that they’re in my house. I came outside the other day to find entire stalks of marigolds torn off and the flowers scattered about the stoop of the townhouse I live in. Now this may just be the handiwork of one of the resident squirrels who buries his peanuts in my window boxes and flower pots. My husband has actually seen the bushy-tailed fellow sniff the air just above a container, then swiftly unearth a nut. (Can squirrels really smell nuts underground? Amazing!) Lately, I’ve found quite a few holes in the soil of my containers, and if it’s the squirrel causing this mischief, so be it. I think of these minor losses as my tithe to nature. Nature giveth, nature taketh away.

Scaevola--photograph copyright Anne Underwood EnslowBut there’s vandalism in the garden that cannot be attributed to squirrels. I came home today after a spectacular afternoon at the Bergen County Wine Festival to find that my lovely purple scaevola was gone. Gone! It was one of four plants I’ve positioned in hanging baskets on the railings around my house, and frankly, it was my hands-down favorite. The curious blossoms, also known as “fan flowers” or “half flowers,” actually do look like half a flower each–a fact that legends have attempted to explain. But even more alluring to me is the fact that my scaevola has maintained a constant supply of fresh-looking blooms all summer. And unlike petunias, which require constant deadheading and quickly become gangly, the plant has kept its nice tight form, with no care other than watering.

Scaevola--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowObviously, a squirrel didn’t walk away with my scaevola. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s no tithe to vandalism. So herewith, I’m filing this “missing plant” report:

One scaevola in a hanging pot
Last seen: Saturday afternoon at 1 pm
If found, please return to owner
Reward: A clear conscience

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The Secret Life of a Caterpillar

Exploring the new dill--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowSuddenly, inexplicably, I–a confirmed
non-pet owner, who rolls her eyes at the endless stream of cat videos on the Internet–am now gaga over the little black-swallowtail caterpillar that’s taken up residence in my dill. Every morning, I come out and search for him, eager to reassure myself that my plump, juicy little caterpillar hasn’t become breakfast for a hungry bird. Sometimes it takes a few seconds to find him, as he’s perfectly camouflaged in the dill. But when I do locate him, I’ll usually sit for a while and admire his latest antics.

Caterpillar on new dill--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowThe longer I look at him, the more amazed I am by his agility. I love to watch him move around the plant, his lithe little body wriggling up, down, and across stalks. With tiny round legs, he clamps the middle and rear parts of his body firmly onto a stalk. Then, with what I can only assume are awesome core muscles, he arches his front quarters upward, sideways, downward, or in any direction that promises food. Yesterday he was hanging off the side of the dill pot. Today I saw him sprawled across stalks, his head swaying from side to side as if he were picking a corn cob clean. But his go-to, dill-devouring maneuver is to arch his body way back, enabling him to aim the tip of a slender dill leaf straight at his mouth. Viewed from the front, he looks almost like a plump little man with a hookah in his mouth (see video, below).

Exploring the new dill--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowOK, I know it doesn’t pay to get too attached to an insect (Charlotte’s Web notwithstanding), but my husband and I have even given him a name–Pilly the Kid (or alternately, the Pillsbury Dill Boy). So you can imagine how worried I was three nights ago when I came outside after dinner to find that Pilly had disappeared. Thinking he’d exhausted the usable dill in my pot, I rushed down to the grocery store to fetch some fresh dill. But the next morning he was back, only to disappear again in the evening–and reappear the following morning. Where was he going? I was dying to know, so last night, I sat and watched him for over an hour. Around 8:15, as dusk descended, he climbed off the plant and onto the adjacent doorframe of the house. He inched his way around the corner and across the brick wall until he got to the big green awning above the dry cleaner downstairs. He spent the night hanging from the awning. Why? Is he seeking shelter from night prowlers? Is he testing the awning for chrysalis building potential? It’s hard to put yourself in the mind of a caterpillar.

Now, cat lovers, you can roll your eyes at my caterpillar video. But you’ve got to admit, Pilly’s kind of cute.

Related posts:
On my discovery of Pilly: Beetles and Snails and Mites, Oh My!
On the beginning of his metamorphosis: Metamorphosis Begins!

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Yellow tomatoes--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowIt would be difficult to pick a single best taste of summer. But somewhere in the list of contenders would have to be these golden cherry tomatoes, ripe from the vine. I’ve been plucking them by the fistful for the last three weeks and tossing them into salads; whole wheat pasta with pesto and walnuts; and even scrambled eggs. (Add fresh thyme and oregano from the garden, thinly sliced garlic, cracked pepper, and coarse grey sea salt to your eggs and cherry tomatoes, and it may just be the best brunch you’ve ever tasted.)

Heirloom tomatoes--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowAs hard as these little ‘maters are to top, even more amazing have been the fabulous heirloom tomatoes I’ve been buying at Sobsey’s Produce (right). Any dish they go into is immediately kicked up a notch or two (or ten). My favorite: the Cherokee Purple tomatoes, which are said to have originated with the Cherokee people. Rich and earthy, these purple orbs have now become my definition of what a tomato should taste like.

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Urban Grillers–Throw Some Eggplant on the Barbie

Grilled Japanese Eggplant with Miso Glaze--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowFor years, I’ll admit, I was unimpressed by eggplant. It was fine smothered in cheese and tomato sauce and served up as eggplant parmigiana. But when it came to cooking with the stuff, I found it tough and seedy; it soaked up a lot of oil, adding calories to whatever dish I was making; and it required preparation to neutralize the bitterness–salting, letting the eggplant stand, rinsing it off. Then this summer I started growing my own, and I swear I will never cast aspersions on eggplant again. The miniature Hansel and Gretel varieties in my garden (purple and white, respectively) have been tender and lovely. They don’t have a lot of seeds. They’re never bitter. They require no peeling. What’s not to like?

Mixed eggplants at the farmer's market--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowAnd last night I found a new reason to love eggplant–in this case, the long, slender Japanese eggplants I found earlier this week at the farmer’s market (right; the pale purple eggplants, not the striped or black ones). My husband fired up the grill and we tried a delicious and super simple recipe–Grilled Japanese Eggplant with Miso Glaze (photo above). It’s from the cookbook 101 Recipes You Can’t Live Without by my friend and former colleague, the fabulous Lori Powell, who’s worked for Gourmet, Real Simple, and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, among others. Because Japanese eggplants are so thin (like my Hansels and Gretels), they cook quickly, making them perfect for grilling. In fact, they seemed to melt in our mouths. Now I know exactly where my next batch of Hansels and Gretels will be going. Thanks, Lori!

Related post: The Tale of Hansel and Gretel

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Ground Cherries

Ground cherry--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowAt the farmer’s market this week, this curious little fruit was for sale. It’s related to the tomatillo, which has a similar papery husk. But improbable as it sounds, the flavor is much closer to that of a cherry. To quote Marie Iannotti’s book, The Beginner’s Guide to Growing Heirloom Vegetables (Timber Press, 2011), “You will note a little tomato flavor to be sure, but you can also taste flavors of pineapple, strawberry, citrus, and the slightest touch of vanilla.” And what do you do with these little gems? Iannotti suggests tossing them into a fruit salad, snacking on them fresh out of the bowl, or even using them to make jam and preserves. “Try it with chocolate,” she adds. Whoa!
Ground cherries close up--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

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Beetles and Snails and Mites, Oh My!

Black swallowtail butterflyMy father was a saint–or slightly dotty, I’m not sure which. An Episcopal priest who was highly influenced by the Quakers, he was a gentle soul who, in his later years, would ask permission of flowers before picking them. If insects found their way into his house, he would bend down and tell them patiently, “You don’t belong inside. You should go outdoors.” Usually they did–or so he said.

Me? When I find big, ugly insects in my home, I’m more of the scream-and-squash-them camp. And lately, it seems, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to practice.

A couple weeks ago, I caught my husband staring at my chest–and not in a good way. His face seemed frozen with concern. It turned out that a beetle was clinging to the front of my white T-shirt. And it wasn’t the first time I’d inadvertently brought a beetle inside after being out in the garden. Earlier in the week, I was working on the computer when I glanced down and–plop!–one fell out of my hair and into my lap. Neither of those beetles lasted long enough for a lecture on how they should really go outdoors.

Beetles are not the only voracious critters that have been turning up in my garden lately. This summer I’ve found everything a gardener is supposed to get rid of–snails, slugs, mites, you name it–and dispatched them to their maker.

black swallowtail butterflyBut today, I had to step back and listen to my dad’s whisperings. I was watering when a saw what looked like a black clump on a stalk of dill. I bent closer and saw that it was a black and white striped caterpillar with tiny orange spikes on its back (right). It had apparently just molted, leaving behind its earlier black skin, which is still visible in the photo. Instead of dispatching it promptly, I brought it inside still clinging to its stalk and placed it in a jar with a moist paper towel while I did some research.

Thanks to the website Gardens with Wings, I found that it is the caterpillar of the black swallowtail butterfly, which I’ve seen several times this summer without knowing what it was (photo, top left). And what are the host plants that the caterpillars prefer? Dill, fennel, parsley, rue. Bingo!

Caterpillar--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowOK, even I am willing to give a caterpillar a break, particularly knowing that it’s a creature that I’ve actually tried to attract by planting butterfly bushes. How hypocritical would it be to attract the butterflies, then kill the caterpillars? I took the caterpillar back outside and gently restored it to the dill plant–glad that the dill has been disappointing this year, because that makes it less painful to submit my plant to the insect’s ravenous appetite. (Apparently, its only task at this stage of life is to eat enough to sustain it through its metamorphosis, according to’s very cool post, “10 Cool Facts About Caterpillars.”) And now, perversely, I’m actually worried about the care and feeding of my caterpillar. Will it have enough food? Will it find a suitable place to form its crysalis? Will a bird snatch it up first? Sigh.

No sooner had I pardoned the black swallowtail caterpillar than I found this spiky white caterpillar (above left) munching the leaf of an eggplant. So who is he? Is he covered by my new butterfly protection plan? I ran inside to check and determined that he’s a fall webworm, a type of moth that’s classified as a pest. And he’s on my favorite eggplant plant! Let’s put it this way. The odds are not in his favor.

Now I’m fretting over whether my butterfly bushes will still be in bloom when my swallowtail emerges, since I now know that a butterfly garden requires both nectar plants for butterflies and host plants for caterpillars. How awful to have a butterfly emerge and find no food. We’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, check out this amazing video from YouTube on a swallowtail caterpillar molting.

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The Age of Aquarius

I was born under the wrong sign. I should have been an Aquarius–the water carrier. I’ve certainly felt like one this summer, sloshing through the apartment multiple times a day with two large watering cans (occasionally watering the carpet on my way). But that’s OK. A man came along a few weeks ago while I was out watering my plants and offered to perform the chore for me for a reasonable fee–which completely misses the point. I have a garden because I enjoy spending time with my plants. I love seeing all the changes that have happened overnight, and I love watching the thirsty soil soak up the water, knowing that water means life.

Last weekend, my husband and I visited friends in upstate New York. With an acre or so of land, they don’t face the same challenges finding space that I do. But three-year-old Abby has her own picture-perfect container garden, planted with help from Mom and big sister Emma. Abby is so adorable wearing her fairy princess dress that you almost expect to discover that her container pots are filled with silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row. But in fact, they’re filled with radishes and bush beans. Abby has loved watching the little sprouts come up. And she already knows rule number one of gardening. As she puts it, “You have to water the plants, or they get kind of dead.” You go, you honorary little Aquarian!

Radishes and bush beans

Abby’s radishes and bush beans

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Ladybug, Ladybug

Sweet potato vines

Effortless beauty:
Sweet potato vines spilling over the sides of a planter

Maybe it was beginner’s luck. Last summer, almost every seedling I stuck into soil flourished with very little effort on my part. All I had to do was add water and stand back, while nature took its exuberant course. In those early days of innocence, every creature that showed up in my garden was welcome, and I viewed all insects beneficently as potential pollinators or essential creatures in the complex web of life.

This year? I’m on the offensive. With all the weird weather we’ve had—overcast days and torrential downpours—pests have been proliferating. Most notably, some unseen enemy has been nibbling on the leaves of my tomato plants, leaving some of them so riddled with holes that they could pass for miniature pieces of lace–the handiwork of aphids, perhaps? Beyond this indignity, there were also some leaves dotted with little black-brown freckles that looked suspiciously like Septoria leaf spot, and a few even showed possible signs of early tomato blight. This could not stand! In an attempt to contain the problem, I pulled up the pepper plant that seemed to be the original source of contagion. Then I started plucking off all the tomato leaves that looked diseased, double bagging them, and tossing them into the garbage, being careful to wash my hands afterwards like a surgeon between operations, so that I wouldn’t spread contamination. And the plants responded, looking healthier every day.

Ladybugs form OrconThen I got a boost from an unexpected and charming source: ladybugs—1,500 of them.

My ladybugs came in a neat little plastic tub, with air holes in the top and protein-rich food on the bottom, courtesy of Organic Control, Inc. All I had to do was water my garden in the evening, then release the polka-dotted predators. (Ladybugs do not fly at night, so they will search their immediate environment for food and water rather than flying away.) If they find enough food—that is, aphids, mites, mealy bugs, and other pests—they will stay and lay their eggs. The result: more ladybugs! When food is exhausted, then they will fly away.

Ladybug on the arugula--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

Ladybug on the arugula

That evening, I removed the top and shook out the ladybugs into my various containers. Immediately, hundreds of little red bugs were exploring my pots and plants. They fanned out—some to the tomatoes, others to the eggplants, peppers, basil, marigolds, parsley, or arugula. As they crawled up stems, around rims, and across leaves, I imagined them as a little army of Pacmen, swallowing up hordes of microscopic bugs. I stood out there with a flashlight, mesmerized, hoping none of the neighbors were watching and wondering what I was up to in the garden at night.

In the morning, I eagerly ran outside and found the little ladies still out in force, hard at work cleansing my plants of pests. But within a few days, most of them seem to have moved on. That’s a good thing, I think, as it means there aren’t enough pests left for them to feed on. In the words of the nursery rhyme, “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home.”

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Rhapsody in Pink

Sun Parasol Giant Pink Mandevilla from the Suntory Collection
My mandevilla last year was so spectacular that this year I bought four! The prize winner among them is this beauty. It’s a giant variety called Sun Parasol, with these large showy flowers and glossy leaves, which grow in pairs on opposite sides of thick tendrils. So far, those tendrils have coiled their way up the trellis and wound in graceful spirals around the railing above. Neither the leaves nor flowers are as abundant as on a standard mandevilla. But each one is so perfectly formed that it commands attention. To me, it’s like a taste of the tropics–but accessible every day and without the tiring flight. Now where’s my snorkeling gear?

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Mint Surprise

SpearmintI was warned. Friends told me: mint will take over your garden if you let it. So I planted my spearmint and peppermint in their own pots, where they couldn’t encroach on neighboring herbs. I thought this would limit the amount I ended up with. And yet ……

I have such an abundance of mint now that no quantity of mint tea or mint juleps could possibly use it all up. Happily, this has encouraged me to add sprigs to all kinds of dishes that I never considered mint-friendly before. So from my kitchen to yours, here’s a trio of “newly minted” favorites:

summer salad with mint

My first summer salad with mint (and purple basil and dill)

Salads. Chopped mint adds a touch of sweetness to a salad that is so pleasing, it almost feels like a palate cleanser. It’s a particularly nice contrast to peppery greens like arugula–hot and cool flavors combined–but it’s delicious with any greens. Combine it with fresh basil, dill, and oregano for a combination that will keep surprising you with vivid tastes at every bite.

PeppermintYogurt. My breakfast every morning begins with a container of Chobani nonfat vanilla yogurt. But lately I’ve found a way to improve on what is already a very good thing. I take six or so mint leaves, chop them finely, and mix them in. While I brew the coffee and wash the blueberries, I let the mixture sit a few minutes to marry the flavors.

Mint-marinated shrimp with tabbouleh, tomatoes, and feta

Mint-marinated shrimp–what a concept

Tabbouleh. This novel recipe from Epicurious–Mint-marinated shrimp with tabbouleh, tomatoes, and feta–is a killer. My husband has declared that we can serve it whenever we have guests, because it’s just that good. (My own tweaks: Substitute quinoa for bulgur; it will cook faster and provide more protein. I also use more arugula than the recipe calls for, so it’s even healthier.)

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Fungus Among Us

Mushroom in the euonymusThis summer has been so rainy and humid that alien creatures have invaded my garden: mushrooms. I discovered them one morning when I was watering the euonymus and spied what looked like a large yellow leaf on top of the soil. It turned out to be the cap of an elaborately gilled mushroom.

Fungus among usCurious, I let it stay. The next morning there were half a dozen more. The day after, another dozen. I pulled them up as fast as I could, but new ones sprung up over night–not appearing first as tender sprouts the way a plant would, but popping up as a fully formed army of ‘shrooms.

More mushrooms in the euonymus--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowA week later a whole different variety materialized up on the opposite side of the container–small, fuzzy things that looked vaguely like bottle brushes. That did it. My benevolent curiosity with the natural world was over. I just wanted to get rid of these things. Part of what makes mushrooms so nutritious (the non-poisonous ones, anyway) is that they are very efficient at drawing nutrients out of the soil. I don’t mind helping out the ecosystem, but not at the expense of my euonymus.

Fungus--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowThere was only one remedy, I was told: Pull up all the fungi, remove the top half inch of soil, and add fresh potting soil. So I did–with apparent success so far. But while I am tentatively declaring victory in the euonymus containers, I came outside the other morning to discover that the window boxes on my stoop were sprouting bright pink fungi. Even more strange, by the time I came home that evening, they were grey.

Fungus--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowSo far, these have been easier to tame. All I’ve had to do is pull them up. And while a few have popped up in other containers, they haven’t come back once I’ve removed the initial colony. But can anyone help me identify them?

Perplexed in Hoboken

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The Tale of Hansel and Gretel

Gretel eggplantHansel eggplantOK, I’ll admit it. Part of what drew me to the Hansel and Gretel miniature eggplants were their names. Wouldn’t it be fun to pair these two varieties, I thought–Hansel with its deep purple fruits, and Gretel with its smooth ivory ones–and see which did better? (The fact that both had been named as All America Selections and would fit in my container garden didn’t hurt, either.)

So far, in this game of horticultural sibling rivalry, Gretel is leading. She was first to bear fruit, producing these spectacular white eggplants (above). The fruit has a tender skin, so you don’t need to peel it–a real plus–there are very few seeds, and the taste is superb. Tonight, several of Gretel’s first fruits went into our ratatouille (below right). Because we had only a few that were large enough to harvest, we had to supplement with eggplant from the market. But that only showed off how superior the Gretels are–sweet and melt-in-your-mouth tender. Ratatouille a la Gretel My husband immediately declared that he could eat “Ratatouille à la Gretel” seven days a week.

But Hansel has produced something I’ve never seen in an eggplant before–twins! Check out the two baby eggplants growing from the same flower (above right). Ain’t it grand? I can’t wait until they’re large enough to eat. Then we’ll plop some into a new batch of ratatouille (along with tasty heirloom tomatoes, plus basil, parsley, and thyme from the garden) and find out which sibling eggplant is the true winner.

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Butterfly Season

Red admiral butterfly on the Proven Winners Lo and Behold butterfly bush--copyright Anne Underwood EnslowMy butterfly bushes were late bloomers this year, what with all the overcast skies we’ve been having. But once their purple blossoms began emerging this week, it took less than a day for the butterflies to arrive. Leading the pack were the red admirals, as usual.

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Requiem for the Riegers

Rieger begoniasI have known for months that my lovely Rieger begonias would not last. I first bought them in April, thinking that these “winter-flowering” begonias, which require cool temperatures and short days, would serve merely as stop-gap flowers to tide me over until May. Yet somehow, with the unseasonably cool weather we had right up until the Fourth of July, they’re still in bloom. Day after day, when I was sure they should be long gone, I would find them flourishing and would think of Mark Twain’s famous statement: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Only now are the Riegers starting to show signs that the end is approaching. There are fewer blooms, and they are not as robust. Before they wilt for good, I have to post this brief appreciation and showcase a few photos of them in their glory last month.

What I love about these plants are the elegant blossoms, far classier than traditional begonias, forming a pattern described as “double rose shaped.” Riegers seem to come in many garish colors, but mine are a delicate white tinged with pink–classy, understated, lovely. Set off against their dark green leaves, the flowers have been a beautiful addition to the container garden on my stoop. I will miss them.

Rieger begonias

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Are These Pots Self-Watering? Sure–Just Add Water

A month after planting, the greens in my self-watering Standing Garden from Gardener's Supply Company were flourishing.

A month after planting, the herbs and vegetables in my self-watering Standing Garden are flourishing (viewed from street level, looking down).

I must admit that I was deeply skeptical when I first heard about self-watering containers. I mean, really, who are they trying to kid? Somebody has to put water in there, and that somebody is you. So how exactly are these pots self-watering? The whole idea sounded too good to be true—like those advertisements you get in the mail for the miracle supplement that will help you “lose 22 pounds without dieting” or “never get Alzheimer’s.”

This summer, however, I did very much want a large container in which I could grow not just herbs, but larger vegetables as well. And the container I found happened to be, that’s right, self-watering. So, with high hopes for the new season, I swallowed my skepticism and placed my order.

Pepper flowers--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowThat was a month ago. Over Memorial Day weekend, I assembled my new, self-watering Standing Garden from Gardener’s Supply Company (a three-splinter job, since the boards are not sanded on the inside surface). But splinters aside, the design is ingenious. The container, which has a four-gallon reservoir for water in the bottom, measures 39.5 inches by 16.5 inches and stands roughly 3 feet off the ground on legs, so you can garden standing up. The “self-watering” part comes from fabric strips that reach from the soil into the tank below and wick up water, keeping the soil at a steady level of moisture all day long, no matter how hot it is outside.

Tomato flowers--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowI planted tomatoes, basil, oregano, peppers and eggplants, wondering what would happen–and have been amazed at the results. Every time I look, the plants seem to have grown another inch. The basil and oregano have graced many fine meals already. And the flowers on the peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants (in the thumbnail photos above, left, and below) are harbingers of delicious things to come.

Eggplant flower--photo copyright Anne Underwood EnslowTrue, I do have to fill the Standing Garden’s four-gallon reservoir every other day. But the plants love the consistency of the moisture. There are no dry spells or episodes of over watering (except for the downpours we’ve been having lately with way too much regularity). And I don’t have to worry if I’m not outside with a watering can at regular intervals every day. So maybe the term is somewhat misleading. But whether these containers are truly self-watering or not, count me as a fan.

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Arugula Gone Wild

arugula flowers

Arugula flowers on my stoop

In my opinion, salad greens should be deep green, not some pale imitation thereof. So on my first trip to the garden store this spring, I bought a large pot of dark emerald-green seedlings labelled “mesclun mix.” The pot contained mizuna, mâche, frisée, parsley, and another plant I didn’t recognize–until I came outside one morning and saw a stalk sticking straight up in the air, topped with two bizarre white flowers. Each blossom had four long, thin petals that stuck out at right angles. I paused to wonder about this strange plant. Then it struck me. The flower looked just like a cross. It was a crucifer–arugula!

For years I’ve read that cruciferous vegetables–including broccoli, cauliflower, and, yes, arugula–took the name “cruciferous” from for their cross-shaped flowers. But no matter how many heads of broccoli I bought at the market, I never saw the blossoms, and the connection remained purely theoretical.

arugula flowers

Arugula flowers, bound for the salad bowl

I let the flowers grow, because I was so intrigued with them, despite knowing that you should never, ever let a food-producing plant go to seed if you want it to keep producing. In the case of arugula, in fact, once the plant produces flowers, the leaves will be bitter, so chefs advise against using them. But here’s the cool thing. You can eat the flowers. Last night’s salad contained about a dozen of the decorative morsels–providing a fun conversation piece for those at the table.

As for the leaves, I’ve blown my shot at obtaining a second batch of salad-worthy leaves from this planting. But as I’m learning, arugula grows like a weed. In fact, it is a weed. I saw huge thickets of it growing wild alongside country paths in northern Spain last month. So with the enthusiasm of the inexperienced, I bought some arugula seeds this weekend and should have a new crop in 2-3 weeks, if the June heat doesn’t scorch them. (What are the chances?) To avoid my mistakes, check out this fun and instructive video from the staffs of Fine Gardening and Fine Cooking. If nothing else, you’ll fall in love with the dog who can’t keep his nose out of the arugula patch.

Related post: Flowers of the Camino

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Flowers of the Camino





P1110974For two weeks in May, I was lucky enough to hike along an ancient pilgrimage route in Spain known as the Camino de Santiago. It is a long story that I will tell properly in another place and time. But among the many joys of getting up each morning and putting one foot in front of the other–whether I encountered sun, rain, or hail(!)–was the sheer beauty of the spring flowers that greeted me at every turn. In tiny stone towns along the way, calla lilies grew thick and beautiful, alongside garden plots brim full of irises. Balconies from almost every house displayed geraniums, petunias, or some other floral bouquet.
P1110123But I expected to find well-tended gardens and window boxes, and I could even anticipate what some of the flowers in them would be. More surprising to me were the wildflowers that grew in profusion along the roadsides. Some were familiar–wild roses, broom, gorse, daisies, heather, and poppies so thick that Monet surely would have painted the scene, had he been there. But others were strange and wonderful. Can anyone help identify these?







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Remembrance of Meals Past

To Proust, the most evocative food may have been the madeleine. But for me, there is no delight comparable to basil and dill fresh from the garden, with homegrown tomatoes running a close second. Last summer’s bounty brought plenty of both, and looking back at some of the highlights fills me with inspiration and anticipation as the new season begins:

Wild- caught salmon (left) is so much tastier than farmed. But grilled outdoors and topped with freshly made pesto, it can’t be beat. And the butterfly bushes right next to the grill create the feeling of a leisurely country retreat, even though we’re literally inches from the city sidewalk.

Unfortunately, I can’t claim credit for this gorgeous salad (above, right). A friend made it from a recipe by Melissa Clark in the New York Times. (To see the Times’s photo, click here.) But it certainly was a highlight of the summer, with fresh figs, pine nuts, tomatoes, spring greens, blue cheese, and sprigs of thyme on top. I think I had three servings.

My husband created this succulent salsa (left) from fresh New Jersey corn, carrots, chili powder, lime, nectarines, and cayenne peppers (from our garden). The nectarines’ sweet flesh, combined with the bite of the peppers, was a dynamite combination. Although he whipped it up to go with grilled tilapia, we decided it was good enough to eat by itself.

Soup is normally loaded with salt. But this rustic tomato soup (above, right; private recipe from Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD) has no added salt beyond that in the low-sodium broth! The secret: start with plenty of herbs and spices in the pot for a little kick (onions, minced garlic, fresh basil, and crushed red pepper flakes, along with the broth and a pile of fresh, chopped tomatoes)–then add a distinctive finish, with a swirl of balsamic vinegar and fresh chopped basil.

Edible pansies added a colorful splash to this salad (right). Mixed with organic baby kale, some of my own cherry tomatoes (above), and heirloom peanuts(!), they created a feast for both the eyes and the taste buds.

Related link: Pesto!

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Garden Godmother

Jane's flower boxes at S. Sullivan's

Jane’s flower boxes at S. Sullivan’s

Not every garden has a godmother. Mine does: my neighbor Jane.

I first met Jane one early morning when she was tending the window boxes and hanging baskets of the corner pub, and she’s been an essential part of my life ever since, offering advice on everything from watering to pruning.

Maybe it’s because neither one of us has children that we think of the garden as something akin to family. Jane routinely inquires after “the kids.” She shares my fascination with each new developmental stage they go through. When I am about to depart on a trip, she happily takes charge of their care and feeding, listening to my plant-sitting instructions. “Feed the plants every day.” “This one is especially thirsty.” “Pick any food you want from the herb garden.” “Feel free to deadhead the bushes.” (Hmmm. Maybe that’s where the parallel to baby sitting ends–I can’t recall ever being instructed as a sitter to lop off the children’s heads.)

While I’m away, she sends reassuring emails saying that the kids are fine and on their best behavior.

She has, however, occasionally expressed surprise at how rapidly the family is expanding and wondered what ever happened to family planning. Last fall, after the two large euonymus bushes appeared in the concrete strip along the side of the house, she emailed, “I see you are harkening back to an early historical time of large families. When did the twins join the clan?” She’s even gone online to see if there’s such an organization as Plants Anonymous–in vain. After all, what gardener would want to kick this habit–especially with such an able garden godmother to help?

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Taking a Hosing

My new, improved hose from Gardener's Supply Company--"drinking water safe."

My new, improved hose from Gardener’s Supply Company–“drinking water safe.”

Et tu, XHose?

I was already feeling betrayed last week, after discovering that a number of nozzle manufacturers include lead, a potent neurotoxin, in the nozzles they make for garden hoses–as if we gardeners don’t care that we’re spraying potentially toxic water onto our vegetables and herbs.

Well, guess what? The hose you attach that nozzle to may be equally hazardous to your health. A couple days after I purchased the XHose, I read the box more closely. There I discovered this notice, which somehow had gone unnoticed amidst all the bold-faced exclamations about the product’s many virtues:

This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm

And just above that: “Not for Use with Drinking Water, Not Potable.”

Granted, I’m not planning to drink out of the hose. But neither do I want to water my herbs and vegetables with unnamed carcinogens and teratogens, which presumably I will eat too when I consume the plants. Do the manufacturers really think we’re that stupid? After discovering those warnings, it took me about five minutes to march outside and disconnect the XHose.

But fortunately, I am not left high and dry. It turns out there is at least one manufacturer with a conscience. I’m ordering the Super-Slim Coil Hose from the Gardener’s Supply Company. Sure, it costs twice as much as a similar one in my local hardware store. But it also has the words I’m looking for in the product description: “Drinking-water safe.”

In the meantime, I’m left with a scary thought: If this is what we get when we grow our own food—and supposedly know where it comes from and how safe it is—what do we get with the produce from giant agribusiness?

See related post: Nozzlegate-Scandal in the Garden

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Nozzlegate–Scandal in the Garden

A basket of Peppy Blue Star petunias hanging from the railing

A basket of Peppy Blue Star petunias hanging from the railing

As my garden has expanded from a random collection of containers to a small urban oasis, I’ve found myself sloshing through the apartment day after day with one overspilling watering can after another. So I finally decided it was time for the purchase I’ve been thinking about for months–a garden hose. I went down to the local hardware store and was delighted to find a very cool one called the XHose—or as the package calls it, “the incredible Xpanding hose!” When filled with water, it expands to 50 feet; when emptied again, it contracts to its original length of just 18 feet, for easier storage in a cramped urban setting.

The XHose didn’t come with a nozzle, but that was OK, because someone had given me one last year. But when I went to detach the nozzle from its cardboard packaging, I was stunned to see this comment on the back:

“WARNING: This product contains lead, a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm. Do not place your hands in your mouth after handling the product. Do not place the product in your mouth. Wash your hands after touching this product.” (Their bold-faced type, not mine.)

I felt the joy draining out of me like the water out of my “incredible Xpanding hose,” as it shrivels back up to its original length. The pleasure of gardening, as far as I’m concerned, is bound up in the healthful, natural experience. I love watching the thirsty soil soak up the rain and seeing my plants change daily, as they sprout new leaves and buds. I derive deep pleasure from clipping herbs, cherry tomatoes, and greens from containers right off the stoop of our house, knowing exactly how and where they were raised–purely and organically. Can I really spray my plants with water that may contain lead?

I know people who won’t give their plants tap water at all, claiming that the chlorine and other contaminants harm the plants. Instead they feed their plants distilled water. I’m not one of them. Our tap water has been tested, and considering New Jersey’s reputation as a giant toxic waste dump, it’s surprisingly clean (though it does contain chlorine).

Today I went back to the hardware store in search of a lead-free nozzle and found that every single one on the racks carried the same warning or a similar one. So maybe there’s a lead-free nozzle out there. But until I find it, I’m going nozzle-free.

Related post: Taking a Hosing

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Rite of Spring

Dahlinova Texas dahlias

Dahlinova Texas dahlias

My husband was right. As usual.

In March, I declared that I wasn’t going to start my container garden until Memorial Day weekend, when I return from a trip to Spain. He said I would never be able to hold out that long. Determined to prove him wrong, I held firm—until seedlings started appearing in greengrocers, farmers markets, and gardening stores. Then, of course, my resolve crumbled (especially since he’ll be at home to water them in my absence).

Basil and dill came home first. Then mint and thyme. A lovely pot of purple calla lilies proved irresistible, and I’ve always loved dahlias. Last year the begonias did very well in the little plot around the tree, so I had buy those too.

Ruby Sensation calla lilies

Ruby Sensation calla lilies

Then a farmer’s market happened to have a variety of mandevilla that was different from the one I grew last year—this one with marvelous, deeply ribbed leaves that look as if they belong in a primeval jungle. And of course, I needed a pot of flowers to hang on the railing at street level, so I invested in purple-and white, candy-striped petunias.

How can I explain this obsession with bringing plants into my life?

“I’ve made an odd discovery,” wrote British philosopher Bertrand Russell many years ago. “Every time I talk to a savant I feel quite sure that happiness is no longer a possibility. Yet when I talk with my gardener, I’m convinced of the opposite.”

Dahlinova Texas dahlias

Dahlinova Texas dahlias

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Urban Gardener Returns–Without the Inferiority Complex

It’s spring—and the squirrels are getting hungry. I know this because little rascals are digging holes in the soil of my flower pots and window boxes, in an apparent search for buried nuts. So far, the main victim has been garlic I planted last fall. But this is a small complaint—trivial, in fact, by comparison with the frustrations of many of my suburban gardening friends.

Rieger begonias

Rieger begonias on Anne’s stoop

I used to feel deprived that my urban garden consists only of containers and a small plot of dirt in the middle of a concrete sidewalk. I would gaze at gardening magazines with envy and dream of a flower bed resplendent with peonies, hollyhocks, and lilacs, and a vegetable patch filled with bumper crops of heirloom tomatoes. Now I realize that my humble urban garden is just as rewarding to me as a proper flower bed–and much easier to maintain.

My suburban friends battle voracious deer that nibble their way through just about anything green. Here in Hoboken, no one has seen a live deer for decades. The city’s boundaries form an industrial strength deer fence that requires no effort on my part. To the east is the mighty Hudson River; to the west, the steep wall of rock known as the Palisades. And if that’s not enough of a barrier, to the north and south are the highways that lead into the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, major arteries of traffic into New York City.

Lyme disease? Not a chance. Without the deer, there’s not a deer tick in sight.

Nor do I have to contend with rabbits, raccoons, and other small creatures that are the bane of so many suburban gardeners.

True, the range of perennials I can plant is limited. But on the other hand, I never have to worry about weeds in the lawn or landscaping that disappoints. If something doesn’t look right, I move the container to a new spot or buy a new plant.

Now that spring is here, sap is rising, and I’m filled with anticipation. The squirrels have given me notice—it’s time to start gardening.

Not a deer in sight

Not a deer in sight

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