Friday, December 30, 2016

Garden Impressions

My husband has always been fascinated by the Impressionist painters, and a highlight of last year's trip to France was our day at Monet's garden in Giverny. I got to wander the gardens looking at gorgeous plants, and he got to immerse himself in the painter's world. It was magical for both of us.

Several years ago he took a stab at painting. He produced quite a few small canvases, but the one that rivals any work by any French Impressionist is this one -- it is called "Laurrie in the Garden".

That's me working the earth, and a deer eating everything I have planted next to me. He tells me there are symbolic touches, like a dead vole he put in there, but I'm not sure I see that. I do see the four hearts in the sky.

Monet painted and painted and repainted his garden over and over multiple times, trying to get the light, the look, and the essence of what he had created. He had dozens and dozens of canvases of the same view.

I can understand that as I try all the time to document my garden in photos. I have thousands of pictures, many posted on this blog, and each one is an attempt to show not only the beauty of the place I've made, but the essence of it.

But Jim's painting captures it like no photograph could.

December 31
Happy Birthday to the
Impressionist painter in my life!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Friday, December 23, 2016


I am re-posting something I wrote at Christmas five years ago, because it still takes my breath away. Here it is, from December 2011:

It is Christmas. You are expecting a red and green theme, some holly and berries, evergreen trees and bright red ornaments, right?  And you know it is the season of miracles.  So here is my red and green post, and it tells of a miracle, one that happens all around us.

As a young student, Donald Culross Peattie was amazed to discover that plants breathe light: 
"Using spectrum analysis, Peattie learned that the constituents of a chlorophyll molecule were eerily familiar. 'To me, a botanist's apprentice, a future naturalist,' he writes, 'there was just one fact to quicken the pulse. That fact is the close similarity between chlorophyll and hemoglobin, the essence of our blood.'  
This is no fanciful comparison, but a literal, scientific analogy: 'The one significant difference in the two structural formulas is this: that the hub of every hemoglobin molecule is one atom of iron, while in chlorophyll it is one atom of magnesium.'  
Just as chlorophyll is green because magnesium absorbs all but the green light spectrum, blood is red because iron absorbs all but the red. 
Chlorophyll is green blood. It is designed to capture light; blood is designed to capture oxygen".  *

Merry Christmas to all the creatures breathing oxygen and all the creatures breathing light in our world.

* Quoted from Tree, A Life Story by David Suzuki and Wayne Grady (it follows the 500 year life of one douglas fir).  Also, read Donald Culross Peattie's book: Flowering Earth
This is the chemical diagram, if it helps. 

Monday, December 19, 2016


One of the things that has defined me my entire life is that I have had, since birth, a severe and life threatening allergy to peanuts. I had two frightening episodes in childhood, and one in adulthood when accidentally ingesting peanuts. Epinephrine and quick medical care were, literally, lifesavers.

But mostly my life has been defined by constant vigilance about menus, obsessive reading of labels, cautious experimenting, and being annoying to many hostesses with my fussy habits.

Family and friends have been absolutely wonderful, always making special nut free versions of treats just for me. I am impressed and grateful when they go out of their way for my unique needs.

Jim has not had a jar of peanut butter in the house all the years we have been married, and PB & J was a favorite of his.

Now, with all the controversial super-attention to peanut allergies in recent years, my life has gotten easier. It was more of a challenge growing up 50 years ago when peanut allergies were apparently rare, and when German grandmothers, to my mother's horror, simply declared "och, a few won't hurt her, she's too picky."

And now, instead of trying to monitor and modify the environment by keeping peanuts away, there is a research effort to modify the peanut itself. This article in the New York Times describes how the allergen-producing proteins can be isolated and plants can be bred (or the nuts treated) to eliminate those proteins. Fascinating stuff, at least to someone like me.

Peanuts are sometimes called groundnuts for obvious reasons. They are Arachis hypogaea. But other plants that have edible parts that grow underground are also called groundnuts, and one that I have wanted to grow is a native vine, Apios americana.

Apios has beautiful flowers and protein rich tubers that sustained native Americans. The Lenape word for it is hopniss.

Hopniss vines grow wild in our New England woods, and are prolific around areas where native tribes once camped. But groundnut tubers are not nuts, they are fleshy roots most resembling potatoes.

I was intrigued by this article that describes growing and eating groundnuts -- it's a good read about foraging for wild foods. One thing caught my attention in the article, and I have read about it elsewhere: about 5% of people get severely sick after eating groundnuts.

Peanuts and groundnuts are in the same legume family. It's unclear whether they have the same proteins that produce the reactions -- both are very high sources of protein.

Somehow the concept of an allergy-producing food growing underground, called a groundnut in both instances, was enough to put me off this wildflower. It's not like I was going to grow it for a food crop, I just thought it was garden worthy and pretty.

But I couldn't.

Even though everything about the Apios plant appealed to me -- it is lovely and native and easy to grow and I like the mauve colored pea like flowers -- everything about the name and the underground parts and the possibility it has the poisonous proteins of the peanut gave me virtual heart palpitations.

I couldn't. It's a groundnut.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Who's the Father?

Something I don't know about is going on in my garden. Because the proof is right here:

Those are holly berries on my Ilex opaca. Very festive at this time of year.

As I have written about before, and as many know, holly plants are dioecious, meaning plants are either male or female and you need one of each to fertilize the flowers and produce fruit.

Obviously my American holly tree is a female. What I don't know is where the male holly is -- he has to be nearby somewhere, right? But it's not like American holly trees are scattered about in the woods, and no one I know in the area is growing an American holly, much less a male one.

It doesn't have to be an Ilex opaca for fertilization to happen. Many homes have ornamental holly shrubs around and I grow Ilex verticillata, winterberry holly, so any of those other varieties could be providing the pollen that the bees bring to this tree.

They have to all bloom together, though, so the flowering timing has to be just right. I wonder what variety is pollinating this tree.

I did plant a male Ilex opaca in the meadow a few years ago just for the purpose. It was tiny, about six inches high, and it died. I planted another and it too is a twig, barely leafing out at all. I never saw flowers, it doesn't seem to be thriving and it can't possibly be the male contributor to the berries on this holly.

So some other holly is the father. I did read that like varieties will produce a much more prolific display of berries. If a male Ilex opaca was nearby and big enough to produce a lot of flowers, it could be that my female tree would be absolutely covered in red jewels at Christmas.

Instead, it has a fair amount of red berries, but you have to look to see them. Sparkly white snow would help highlight them, just as it does for the winterberry hollies.

The tree itself is just a few years old and needs to fill out, but I'm pleased with how it is growing. It's doing well, gaining size and getting a little bit of shape.

It's a long way from the specimen I saw years ago at Conn College in summer, though. That one was a beautiful dense shape, sitting in a pool of light in an opening in a forest. I came on it unexpectedly as I walked through the woods. It was a magical sight.

Mine will never be branched to the ground like that. But as it fills out I am hoping it starts to look as dense as the mature specimen. It's certainly as green and shiny.

But wouldn't my holly be great covered all over in red berries -- many, many more than what it has now from an unknown source of questionable parentage?

Who exactly is the father, anyway?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Curious Occurrence

Every year I look forward to seeing the bright Christmas-red berries on the winterberry hollies. They don't show up against the brown of late fall. They need a snowfall for background, and then they just sparkle against the white.

The deer or the birds strip the berries by the end of December, so it has to be an early snowfall, timed just right for the holidays, to enjoy the red berries at their best.

Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) doesn't have much to recommend it otherwise. It's a medium green, nondescript rangy shrub with small leaves and insignificant flowers during the season. It doesn't look like anything, but it's a good filler in the border.

It's the berries that make it worth growing, even if they only show up against snow, and even if they only last a week or two before being eaten up.

I have three winterberry shrubs in this back garden, but curiously, only one has berries this year. Every other year they all put out fruits at the same time, and then were all stripped at the same time.

The two twiggy stick-like shrubs above are right next to the third one that has red berries. These two never fruited at all this fall -- not a single berry appeared.

Could it have been the severely dry summer? I lost several plants in this specific area of the garden, including a mature hemlock and a bunch of epimediums that should have tolerated dry conditions better. Did these two hollies succumb, while the third one got enough moisture being down a slight slope from the other two?

Here's the lone red-berried holly from the other side, looking back at the house.

It's an odd occurrence. The other two hollies were leafy all summer, although stressed looking from the drought. Did they simply not set fruit to conserve scarce resources -- and if so, will they leaf out and thrive again next season?

Or did they die?

Friday, December 9, 2016

No Gardening Today

I spent yesterday inside making, baking and decorating Christmas cookies. It is physically way harder than working outside digging, hauling or toting. My back hurts.

These are sugar cookies with anise extract added. Lots of anise -- the recipe calls for a quarter teaspoon and I put a full teaspoon in and a little more. By a little more, I mean three teaspoons. Plus I put anise extract in the icing too.

Not everyone likes the taste or aroma of anise, but my family loves these cookies and refuses to celebrate the birth of our savior without a plate of these in front of them.

I'll mail tins of them out west with the Christmas gifts, and keep enough here too.

It amazes me how strenuous it is to be standing and bending in the kitchen for hours. I'm not this sore when I come in from digging out an entrenched rootball or hacking down bittersweet vines or transplanting large trees.

The kitchen is sticky, my fingers are stained green from colored sugar, and my body aches. The dishwasher died last week and the new one hasn't arrived, so all the bulky tins and trays and crusty bowls have to be washed by hand.

But the house smells so good.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016


I learned so much about the biological workings of large plants in this book by Peter Wohlleben The Hidden Life of Trees.

He makes gleeful, joyous observations about how trees communicate and how they sense their environment and how they even remember and maybe even feel.

Some of it is speculation, a lot is yet to be proven, but much of it is established science that he writes about in a way that a gardener like me can enjoy.

Like the process of abscission -- he tells us that when trees get ready to drop their leaves for winter, they first have to create two layers of cells in between the leaf and the stem.

A chemical process reacts to shorter days (think about this, a tree has to "tell time" by reacting to how long the light is and "remember" that yesterday was shorter than a week ago and somehow store that information chemically in its being. . .  this boggles. . . )

When the tree tells what time it is and remembers how long each day has been, and gets ready to shed leaves, or abscise them, it forms a layer of cells with weak walls. Then it forms a layer of bigger expanding cells near the stem. When the big cells expand they break the weak cells open and the leaf comes off.

It takes time to grow these cells in fall. If an early frost freezes the leaf before the cell layers have grown, the tree can't get rid of its leaves. It's too late to grow the expanding cell layer and the weak walled cells.

Japanese maples often get caught without enough time. They freeze here before they can abscise, and then the brown dead leaves end up hanging on the tree all winter. There is no expansion layer to push the weak layer off.

I've despaired about that with my Japanese maples in some winters.

Oaks and young beeches choose not to abscise their leaves on purpose. They use a whole other strategy for getting through winter.

But the trees that do drop go through a specific, timed process to make that happen.

And I've been thinking about that process a lot lately. If Wohlleben can write about the human-like lives of trees, is it a stretch to think about the botanical-like parts in us?

Is it stretch to realize I am just now growing cells, creating separation layers that will allow me in a year or two to abscise my garden and all that I have grown in it?

We will move in the future and I will leave this garden. We are planning and getting ready, and I feel myself now building emotional distance -- a layer that will let me be rid of what has been so important to me when I say goodbye to my garden and move west some day.

I'm not ready yet. It's taking some time. I have to go through a process of growing those layers first, but I can feel it just as surely as the trees outside my window grew their own cells of separation for winter.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Wreaths and Sleds

December begins in Wyoming with putting up wreaths.

And in Connecticut too, where the weather is warm and wet, kind of unseasonal.

And this year, in addition to the wreaths I added some old sleds for decorations too. One is by the front door and one against the brick garage wall.

I found these two antique sleds and a 6 foot tobboggan in our basement.

I've been cleaning out our distressingly cluttered basement for weeks. Since one son got married and the other bought a house this year, I've been going through the junk down there and finding things to send to them to keep now. I've mailed out keepsakes and boxes, and then had the overwhelming task of sorting through what remained -- immense piles of junk, theirs and ours, to throw out.

Down below a bunch of furniture and boxes and linens and books and crap were these two sleds. I didn't even know we had them. I'll have to do some research to see if they are of any value as antiques at this point. Both were Jim's childhood toys, well used more than fifty years ago.

And well hidden with a lot of other stuff that got stowed in basements of different houses over different decades and moved, moved again, and forgotten.

It's amazing what showed up when I started going through long sealed boxes and jumbled piles. A Keurig machine we never used. Payroll stubs from my father's first job at Allis Chalmers in the 1930s (why did I even have those?). A croquet set.

The sleeping bag I froze in on the top of Mt. Washington in 1967 (it's mildewed). Tax returns from 1993. A Soviet newspaper in Russian from 1969 (I could still read the headlines, but the story lost me). Ski maps from an area that closed thirty years ago. Prodigious snarls of Christmas tree lights in giant living tangles. Phone jacks.

So. Much. Random. Stuff.

If only I knew where my old doll Mary was. I did not find her.