Friday, July 31, 2009


Hot yellow rudbeckia.

Zinnia, one of Mexico's gifts to the Americas.

A few months ago a local couple invited many of the folks in my village and me to a mariachi party. I did not go, which is a pity from the historic point of view. Had I been there, I would have witnessed the unprecedented arrival of the police at a gathering that included the mayor. Reportedly, the mariachi band had been so overcome with enthusiasm it and the mayor forgot that the village has a noise ordinance. A disgruntled neighbor called the boys in blue and while no one ended up in the hoosegow, there was probably a certain amount of ayayaying during the explanatory period.
Local fiestas tend to be subdued in summer when the university students are making noise elsewhere. Fauna and flora benefit from the quiet. I know I do. I almost forget that I live two hours away from the nation's capital. If it were not for the fact that e-mail allows me to reach people in remote corners of the world, I might feel totally cut off from the hurly burly of our civilisation. To keep from turning into complete hermits, the Infanta and I make occasional forays into the real exurbia. There is, somewhat near us a town that looks like the setting for a Victoria movie. There, superbly kept Victorian houses set in manicured lawns give the impression that lives untouched by adverse circumstances. Truth is, that tragedy has no respect for quaint architecture. In that very town, earlier this year, a man who seemed to be perfectly normal took a pair of garden shears and decapitated his wife and young children, then shot himself. The town is beautifully still and to those who have not heard of the crime, it is a little slice of sweet Americana.
How tragedy and beauty coexist is a mystery to most of us. In the Victoria town, one can still hear the musical accents of the South before local speech became a homogenized thing pattern on HBO speak. You can see two men sitting in front of a gas station talking about World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima. One of them might be tall and lean and he will wear blue clothes similar to those of Van Gogh's olive gatherers. A few miles away, two egrets will stand stock still near a stream. There will be those horrible shopping mall roses French botanists have committed and every median will be radiant with lemon lilies, rudbeckia and Fairy roses.
We come to home to a floral fiesta of zinnias and black eyed susans. The world is too much with us out there. We have novels to write and books to review--Margot Berman's Hothouse Flower: Nine Plants of Desire, for example. We intend to cocoon with a vengeance.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


The last Casablanca lilies of the season.

Delphimium blue.

The dog days of summer have no gentleness, no civility, no middle of the roadness. They fry plants, frizzle hair, fray tempers. For all that gardening is an attempt to tame nature and reorder the universe, the wise gardener knows better than to fight the heat. The thing to do, under the circumstances, is to get a copy of Pliny the Younger's letters, shut the door on the oppressive weather and think of the icy spring in that flows in the writer's farmlet, in his native Lake Como country.
There is civility galore in Pliny. There is gentleness, generosity and gatherings of friends who discuss literature the way most of us discuss the most important things in our lives. Pliny talks of law, harvest, wine, the giving of gifts and praise and he does so elegantly. All this, the gardener reminds herself, before central air. True, Roman's of his time had recourse to the frigidarium in their baths, but outside, in summer, the world was a tepidarium that could grow hot as blazes.
Did Pliny grow delphiniums, lilies, zinnias, cosmos, buddleia, careopterys--those good old workhorses of high summer? It is doubtful. His was a working farm meant to produce grain and grapes and some of these plants might not have yet reached Europe at the time. No matter, his was a green world, a good place to visit at any time of the year.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Fruit and Vegetables from the Midi, Renoir.
My pear tomatoes.
Pesto, pesto, pesto.

First you get fruity, unfiltered cold pressed extra virgin olive oil--Lebanese is my current choice--and add to it a sufficiency of fresh mashed garlic, Parmeggiano cheese, pine nuts and black pepper. If you are purist, you grind the lot in a mortar, but if you are not, it is acceptable to whirl it in a food processor, making sure that you do not liquify it entirely. Correct seasoning. There. That is it, summer in a bottle. Eat the entire thing on bread fresh from the oven or it to a huge platter bowl of past. Share it with your beloved, your relatives, neighbours, the postman. The operative word is feast. If you have made lots of pesto, pour it into ice cube trays and feeze it. Transfer the frozen cubes to plastic bags and return to freezer. Use the frozen cubes to add flavor to vegetable soup, paltas rellenas, orange and beet salad. This winter, when it snows, add it to bean soup. It will make you feel as if you were basking in the sun of an ancient piazza in Italy.
It is not too late to plant basil. For that matter, if you live in zone 6 , you can transplant tomato seedlings for a second crop. I just did. Please congratulate me

Monday, July 27, 2009


Pink achillea and blue geranium.

Late at night I travel to Istanbul, courtesy of the magic carpet author Jason Goodwin provides with The Janissary Tree. There, gardens bloom on Iznick tiles of splendid blues, greens and pomegranate reds. I dream of asking Goodwin how he recreates this world of opulent color, singing fountains, bright jewels. Good writers are magicians and I am in awe of their power. Dare I ask this particular magician for an interview? Why not? The worst that will happen is that he will say no. I ask and hold my breath, metaphorically speaking.

I wake up to a sky as grey as a chunk of hematite. The temperature has zoomed into the upper eighties. The air is oppressive. The garden looks dry and exhausted. The round ruffled leaves of the Rond de Nice squash droops forlornly. When is these stony clouds going to resolve themselves into a cooling rain? We have had brief showers for the last three days, so brief they do no more than coax plant roots into coming closer to the surface to absorb a few drops before they evaporate. I go out with watering cans filled with grey water. This is not enough, I know. What my plants need is a series of long drizzles, gentle and sweetly thirst quenching.

The day ends without the promised downpour.

"Later," says the weatherman. "Later."

I labor over sentences. I murder paragraphs. My characters rebel, throw off the alphabet, become mute. I find a poem that is as fresh and cool as if it had just been written. It refershes the soul. And then, joy of joys, Goodwin says yes. What else can a provincial writing gardener want> Rain, perhaps. But has been promised. It will come.

Beloved, let us once more praise the rain.
Let us discover some new alphabet,
For this, the often praised; and be ourselves,
The rain, the chickweed, and the burdock leaf,
The green-white privet flower, the spotted stone,
And all that welcomes the rain; the sparrow too,-
Who watches with a hard eye from seclusion,
Beneath the elm-tree bough, till rain is done.
There is an oriole who, upside down,
Hangs at his nest, and flicks an orange wing,-
Under a tree as dead and still as lead;
There is a single leaf, in all this heaven
Of leaves, which rain has loosened from its twig:
The stem breaks, and it falls, but it is caught
Upon a sister leaf, and thus she hangs;
There is an acorn cup, beside a mushroom
Which catches three drops from the stooping cloud.
The timid bee goes back to the hive; the fly
Under the broad leaf of the hollyhock
Perpends stupid with cold; the raindark snail
Surveys the wet world from a watery stone...
And still the syllables of water whisper:
The wheel of cloud whirs slowly: while we wait
In the dark room; and in your heart I find
One silver raindrop,-on a hawthorn leaf,-
Orion in a cobweb, and the World.

Conrad Aiken (1889–1973)

Friday, July 24, 2009


Potted Casablanca lilies in their second year.
Close-up of Casablanca lily.
Cobalt blue Fukagawa porcelain vase decorated with white lily.

"Phenolics," says my scientist friend, backing away from my Casablanca lilies as if from the devil himself. " Being illiterate in science, I have no idea of what he means. A quick look at the google database provides me with incomprehensible answers such as, "Lily PPO possessed a diphenolase activity toward catechol, catechin and gallic acid; catechin was the best substrate for the enzyme considering the Vmax/Km ratio. " So I begin my fruitless quest for a description of the intoxicating scent of one the most beautiful flowers in my garden. My nose decodes it as a spoicy smell with a predominant note of cinnamon. I am no expert. I could ask Chandler Burr, my learned occasional correspondent who has authored books on scents, but it would be an imposition considering that he recently answered my questions about the scent of azaleas mentioned in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca . By the way, the answer is, azaleas are scentless.
Form, color, substance and a fierce determination to are good enough reasons for planting Casablanca lilies. Mine are crammed into a faux terracotta pot--the real thing wicks out water too quickly--set at the foot of the truly enormous climbing Noisette rose Claire Jacquier. Therefore its feet are in shade while its top is up in the air, which supposedly is a good way for lilies to live. The only difference I see in its development, is that it only grows up to a foot or so. The flowers, three to a stem, are spectacular. I woulds grow fields of these bulbs if budget and voles would allow. At one point, I planted fifty of them in the rose border and now only one remains. That is when I planted a couple of bulbs into the plastic pot. This is their second year and I intend to pot a few more this coming autumn. That way I will have something of surpassing beauty next July when my garden enters its fairly bleak hot weather
stage. Nothing can possibly please the eye as much as these lilies did this evening, after a soft rain.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Shino ware from the Momoyama period (1568-16000).

Wild morning glory.

In his novel A Thousand Cranes, Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata wrote about a flower arrangement associated with the tea ceremony,
"It was plain indigo morning glory, probably wild, and most ordinary. The vine was thin, and the leaves and blossom were small. But the green and the deep blue were cool, falling over a red lacquered gourd dark with age....He gazed at it for a time. In a gourd that had been handed down for three centuries, a flower that would fade in a morning." When I first read Kawabata, twenty years ago, that paragraph seemed to encapsulate the essence of Japanese aesthetics. I still think it does.
Ikebana and Japanese gardening are two art forms I have never pursued. Both are so closely related to Buddhism I feel that they fit into most American homes and landscapes the way an elephant fits into a matchbox. In fact, the most unbeautiful garden I ever ever seen is a pseudo-Japanese assemblage of stone lanterns and trellises in the back yard of a suburban tract house. I am sure that it pleases its owner and if I squint and look at specific elements, I can see that it has a certain charm. Still, I would not attempt to recreate in my own space.
Old as my village is, by American standards, it is its infancy, compared to to its japanese equivalent. My house, which owes more to Scandinavia in its raw boned designed than to Asia, is no place for moon gates and pebble streams. Though I have used one of my few Fukagawa vases on occasion, my rooms call for wilflowers in jelly jars.
What made me think of Kawabata, Japanese gardens and ikebana was the blossom of a a bindweed vine that grew against one of my front windows. Ordinarily, my reaction to bindweed is one of profound aversion. Had I not forsworn harsh chemicals I would Round Up every single one in my yard, it being that pulling them up by the roots apparently encourages them to produced numerous offspring. But this particular vine had a pink blossom of such lyrical beauty I had no heart to kill it. Late afternoon light is one of the great treasures in my neighborhood. I have seen it in pale green, lavender and gold. The light that shone through the ethereal petals of the bindweed flower was silver, dusted with golden motes. It made the Shino pottery gourd Kawabata mentions superfluous. It was more almost than the heart could hold.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Monarda Bluestocking.

Hummingbird snack bar.
Ruby throated male hummingbird.

His heart beats 1 260 times per minute. His wings beat 80 times for seconds. While in flight, their metabolism is the fastest of all animals except insects. body makes it imperative for a ruby throated hummingbird to consume three times their weight in nectar. That is where gardeners can help by planting red, pink, yellow and orange flowers with deep calyxes, such as agastache, columbine, coral honeysuckle, monarda, pentas, and salvia.
My first effort to attract hummingbirds to my garden is very modest. I bought an inexpensive plastic bird feeder and mounted it on an iron shepherds hook tall enough to discourage predatory cats. Rather than the prepacked tinted syrup sold at stores, I provide hummers with a mix of one cup of water to one fourth of a cup of sugar. I added hanging baskets of red geraniums, salvia and petunias to the snack bar and lo and behold, less than a week later, the hummers found them. Next year I will try to offer them a larger variety of high sucrose flowers. Barbara Damrosch's beautifully illustrated Theme Gardens includes a plan for a hummingbird garden. I can't think of a better source of inspiration.

UPDATE-- After two days of marvelously cool weather, the veggie garden has been weeded and all the miniature roses have been plant in the rose border. Casablanca lilies are in bloom and the summer squash has responded well to a good rain. Sir Thomas Lipton rose is re blooming, delphinium, rudbeckia and lychnis put out a modest show. Matchstick chrysanthemum makes an early appearance. It looks lovely next to lavender.

Friday, July 17, 2009


Barack Palinka.

Apricot tart with toasted almonds.


Prunus Armeniaca, Armenian plum, otherwise known as apricot, acquired many labels throughout its approximately 3, 000 years of cultivation. Ancient Romans called it Mala armeniaca, Armenian apple and praecocia, pre-ripened, from the Latin praecoquus, pre-cooked. Arabs called al-barquq, which means plum, and in some parts of the Spanish speaking world it is known as damasco, which implies that a Syrian origin. Apricock, as it used to be called in English is, arguably, the sweetest fruit of the rose family. So sweet, in fact, that one of its latest varieties is called Candy.
Whatever its label, a basket of apricots is a scrumptious gift and its giver is a person of real generosity. To find such a git at one's doorstep, as I did, recently, fills one's day with all sorts of delightful possibilities. In my case, the first impulse is to take a mental snapshot of the contents of the basket, to fix the moment in my mind. The second is to sketch with the intent of painting a watercolor or making chalk drawing in velvety paper that approximates the texture of the fruit. All this must be done very quickly. Apricots do not keep well and that gives me license to eat one as I try to decide what to do next.
After consulting with the Infanta, who is a competent cook, I decide that we will make an apricot tart. She will be in charge of blending eggs, whole milk, flour, sugar, and vanilla bean paste for the creme patissiere. I will make the crust and blend apricot preserves with a goodly dash of amaretto, which is made from apricot kernels. The latter will be used as a topping for the tart, a process that is as necessary as as gilding a lily, since the fruit needs no enhancement whatsoever. The handful of toasted almonds added at the end adds texture, but it is really not required. If one has access to sweet apricot kernels, one could create an extra layer of apricot flavor of which only the truly decadent or the unreconstructed gourmand could approve. They would not be averse to finishing up with a small glass of Barack Palinka, a Hungarian apricot brandy made from apricots. I did that once, long ago, in a tiny Parisian restaurant in the Rive Gauche and reader, I have been a better person ever since.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Ivory pyxis, Moorish Andalusia, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Alexandra Romanov's favorite perfume.

Passionflower blossom.

Necklace by Alexander Calder, Metropolitan Museum.

Nature knows nothing of vulgarity. It fashions flowers of such barbaric richness the crassest arriviste would hesitate to wear them. Take the passionflower blossoms in my garden. In order to reproduce it, Faberge would have needed tanzanite, Rose de France amethyst, rubies, imperial topaz, alexandrite, rock crystal, paparadsha sapphire, raw emerald and the palest peridot. The result would be gaudy and ostentatious bubble, in the style some of the Romanovs favored. Poor, poor Romanovs. Their last Czar, Nikolai, was never as happy as when he grubbed in the dirt of his little garden in Yekaterinburg. Fixed by the cold eye of Soviet kulaks, he dreamed of cabbage, not jewels. His wife, Alexandra was of another mind altogether. Though she she was fond of roses--Frau Karl Drushki was one of her favorites--when she wore corsages, she added yards and yards of pearls to set them off. Somewhere there is a painting that shows hear wearing pink roses, perhaps her beloved Baroness Rothschild. Prior to Yekaterinburg, She had massive flower arrangements brought from her greenhouses to her mauve bedroom, turning it into a garden. If those were not enough, there were always the Faberge baubles to add to the illusion that nature itself could be brought to heel.
We each made our garden to suit our style. Long before the Romanovs counted for much, the Moors created splendid gardens in Al-Andalus. They grew lazy and fat, married Iberian women and raised children who spoke romance languages better than they spoke Arabic. When the hard core Islamic fundamentalism decided to whip the Al-Andalus crowd into proper shape, the Moorish empire fell apart. Needless to say, so did the Moorish gardens. Today, we catch glimpses of how they must have been in the few surviving objects, such as the cylindrical ivory pyxis--a container for aromatics such as ambergris-- seen above.
Alexander Calder, who has nothing to do with either Russians or Moors, is one of the artists who capture the essence of passionflower vines in simple metal jewelry that seems more alive than anything Faberge ever made. I find it enchanting.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Van Gogh's Child with Orange.

Fantin Latour's Nasturtiums

A Candy daylily on the wane.

Asclepias tuberosa, butterfly weed is one of the joys of July.

Prince Truffaldino does not visit my garden in search of oranges, as he does in Prokofiev's Любовь к трём апельсинам opera. Just as well. Neither butterfly weed, day lilies blossoms nor nasturtium blossoms secrete the princesses Fata Morgana's spell compelled him to seek. They are orange all right, but they serve a purpose other than providing a mate for ill behaved princes. Aptly named butterfly weed's function is to feed the larvae of Monarch butterflies. Day lilies and nasturtium blossoms must be shared with humans who add them to salads and fritattas.
Gardeners are known to fall in love with certain colors, as painters occasionally do. At the moment, I happen to be in love with orange. ”Everyone knows that yellow, orange, and red suggest ideas of joy and plenty. I can paint you the skin of Venus with mud, provided you let me surround it as I will," said Eugene Delacroix. Van Gogh relied on the blue color to provide chromatic balance in paintings lavished with his beloved oranges and yellows. Oranges and yellows and blues are the colors of the Midi, of the Indienne textiles of Provence, of lavender fields dotted with poppies. I think they may also be the colors of paradise.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Speaking of roses or rose trellises, Tintoretto's painting of Susannah and the Elders is part of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice" exhibit, which ends in August 16, 2009. Visit the museum to see to learn how the rivalry between these three Venetians master helped shape the "Venetian style" "through loose technique, rich coloring, and often pastoral or sensual subject matter. These elements inspired countless later artists, promoting a Venetian current in painting up to the twentieth century."


I suppose one can be too rich or too thin. These are not my areas of expertise. One thing I know for sure is that one can never have too many roses. As I have made abundantly clear in previous posts, my preference is for the French roses of the Victorian era. That is not to say that I am indifferent to all other roses. The coral and yellow roses that blend so well with the blue of delphinium, geranium, lavender and perovskia and are somewhat rare among the older varieties. I am particular fond of Alchymist, but it blooms much too early in my garden and since it is not remontant, there is no hope of matching it with my favorite blue perennials.
Modern miniature roses provide the perfect solution for my problem. They are sturdy, unfussy and they bloom almost non-stop. Their range of color is extraordinary. It includes wild red and yellow and red and white combination that would be intolerably ugly in larger roses. Most are unscented, but geneticists are hard at work to change that. Scentsational roses are said to be intensely fragrant, something I cannot confirm since my own mauve Scentsational became the rare casualty among the many mini roses I have grown throughout three decades.
At the moment I have approximately three dozen minis--a gift from a good friend--waiting to be potted. Ideally, I would place them in containers that can be brought indoors for the winter. Exiguous space and the objectionable behavior of two feline hooligans preclude that option. I will just have to find the best way to prep them for our erratic winter.

Monday, July 13, 2009



Alas, for the garden. I spend my time sending interview requests to writers I admire. My interview with Canadian author Louise Penny is up at love her crime fiction books. They are richly layered, dense with yummy tidbits and surprises as the most delicious cake. Plus, she is a woman of elegant manners and wit. I feel lucky to have had the chance to communicate with her. Next, I will be talking with author Sujata Massey whose Rei Shimura novels are vastly entertaining and delightfully fresh.
The news from the garden is that the round Italian zucchini from Thompson and Morgan has actually gone into production. Bambi must be slipping. In the flower garden, a glorious cobalt blue delphinium is in bloom along with deliciously cotton candy pink roses. Daylilies, black eyed susans, perovskia, catmint and lavender put forth an abundance of blossoms. The paintbox geraniums that looked so umpromising when I bought them have caught up with the double petunias and verbena. Annual baby's breath I grew from seed has finally come into its own.
Tomorrow I will be unpacking an enormous order of miniature roses and mowing the lawn carefully to preserve the clover blossoms that have attracted three honeybees to the the garden.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Fantin Latour's Hydrangeas

Playwright John Guare told me not to " a lumpen, my dear" when I asked him a question he did not like. Joyce Carol Oates was graciousness personified when she I interviewed her for a provincial newspaper. Two writers, two different stytles, two different approaches. I remember Guare's cowboy boots more clearly than I remember the lecture he delivered at the local university, but i cannot forget the comment he addressed to one of the students in the audience whose mind he compared to worn out jockey shorts elastic. During one of her lecture, Oates contended courteously with the high pitched wailing of a baby whose parents thought he was old enough to begin his career as a culture vulture.
I realize that none of this has to do with gardening, cookery or art. It has to do with my new blog, in which I will discuss writers and writing. I wait with baited breath to conclude an interview with Chandler Burr, whose title of perfume critic of the New York Times does him no justice. He is much more than that. See my new blog for details.
Meantime, the garden enters its slow phase. There is a second, more modest floraison of the heirloom roses. The rugosa Sir Thomas Lipton seems to have synchronized its blooming with the waxing moon. Pale daylilies, remnants of two subsequent plantings of White Flower Farm mixes and Klehm's Song Sparrow farm specialties keep pace with lavender and china blue delphiniums. Bluestocking monarda thrusts its coarse blossoms among Seafoam roses. Casablanca lilies are in bud. Hydrangeas and nasturtiums compete in number of blooms.
In the vegetable garden all but half a dozen strawberry plants defy the voracious deer as do a few tomatoes, snow peas, okra--planted for the unsurpassed elegance of its flowers--summer squah and pumpkins. A terrifyingly repulsive worm has attacked the radishes and no doubt it will also devour the purple Dragon carrots. Season after growing season in the garden, plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
Thinking of ruined gardens, I pull Daphne du Marier's Rebecca out of my bookshelf. It rereads marvelously well. I read recently, probably in Burr's You or Someone Like You that "All paradises are paradises lost." Max de Winter and the de Winter villainess in The Three Musqueteers' each lost paradise due to the serpentine convolutions of adultery. In real gardens and in gardens of words, the more it changes, the more it remains the same.

Monday, July 6, 2009


"My most essential art, which is not that of writing but the domestic art of knowing how to wait, to conceal, to save up crumbs, to reglue,regild, change the worst into the not-so-bad, how to lose and recover in the same moment that frivolous thing, a taste for life." Colette

The life of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, writer of genius, musical hall performer and make-up artist confirmed what Shakespeare had to say of Cleopatra, "age cannot wither her nor does custom stale her infinite variety." She was 62 when she married Maurice Goudeket. He was a pearl broker 17 years her junior. Colette provincial Burgundian whose love of the land never faltered. Goudeket was an erudite urban Jew and a pearl broker. During their thirty year marriage they were much more than lovers. They were partners who playedtogether shared ideas, who worked together and who played together. Referring to a conversation that last for four and a half hours, Colette wrote to her friend Marguerite Moreno,
"How it satisfies find that my partner is on the right wavelength."
Goudeket, in turn, said in The Delights of Growing Old,
"I set myself gently by the side of this woman whom life has so wounded and I did so with the firm determination of proving to her that fidelity was not an empty word. Year by year she grew more persuaded of this, and her last books bear witness to a serenity that she would not otherwise have acquired."

Not every woman is that lucky. According to the US Census Bureau,

"In 2002, among people 55 years and over, men were more likely than women to be married and living with their spouse (74 percent and 50 percent, respectively).

Because women have longer life expectancies than men, it is not surprising that 31 percent of women and only 9 percent of men aged 55 and over were widowed. With increasing age, the proportions of women who were widowed rose rapidly: 10 percent of women 55 to 64, 41 percent of women 65 to 84, and 79 percent of women 85 and over."

How do older women living alone enrich their lives? How do they prepare for physical changes that come with aging? How does being single and older affects their standing in the community? What sort of economic challenges do they face and how do they cope with them? How much political power do they have? How do they influence public policy? How many of them connect with others through the Internet? How do they form support groups? How active are they in the movement for racial and religious tolerance? What are they doing to help the environment? How do they interact with younger people? In other words, what sort of legacy to they choose to leave behind? Please share your story with me for a book in progress.