December 23, 2009

The Jungle Moves Indoors

I write these words a few days before Christmas with a large, unruly bougainvillea brushing the top of my head. To my right are lush orchids and more bougainvillea. I’m not spending the holidays on some exotic Caribbean island, however. There’s a foot of snow outside and the temperature is in the low teens. This tropical jungle is in my own home.
From May to early October, the gardens around my home sport a profusion of containers and our porch and deck are awash in greenery and flowers. This year there were more than forty container gardens ranging in size from 14-inch pots to 30-gallon behemoths. In our screened porch, dozens of individual plants were arrayed on trays and benches. On our deck, more containers and heat-loving tropicals provided color into September.

But when overnight temperatures dipped into the 40s, the tender plants began migrating indoors. The tropicals were the first to make the move, followed by hardier succulents, cyclamen and herbs. As annuals succumbed to frost, the containers that bore them were washed and stowed in the basement. The property has been bare of containers since early November.

Indoors, though, is a Noah’s Ark of the plant kingdom. They crowd in front of every window, especially those with a southern exposure. I share my office (above) with a rack of sun-thirsty plants plus two hanging bougainvillea. (You can see them in the topmost photo in their 'summer quarters'.)  The aforementioned orchids are in the hallway where there is a triple window. There are half a dozen neomarica, better known as walking iris, that were cut from a mother plant in late summer. They will grow through the winter, and be given away in the spring. Down in the basement where a bank of ground-level windows allow in feeble sun, a magnificent papyrus – rescued from our water garden – stands four feet tall and brushes up against the ceiling. Nearly a dozen spathiphyllum, commonly called the peace lily, are scattered around the house. There seems to be one in every room and all of them are currerntly in bloom.

It is out in the garage, though, that the extent of our plant asylum becomes apparent. Betty mixes perennials and annuals in containers, often with dramatic results. When she pulled apart those containers in October, many of the perennials showed well-developed root systems. She made the decision to winter over the best of the plants.

However, we do not have a greenhouse. What we have, instead, is a large, well-insulated garage that stays above freezing and has a large, southwest-facing window. There, up against the glass are huddled more than a dozen containers. There is an enormous, cattail-patterned concrete urn where a fern is going through its dormancy period. A white Italianate container holds a now-well-established trailing herichrysum petiolare, otherwise known as a licorice plant, that has found its hibernal equilibrium. Various salvia, verbena, and gaura have been sharply trimmed back but are holding their own and seem poised to survive a New England winter.

Logic says we should consider our plants disposable; chuck them into the compost pile as we do hundreds of annuals. But logic isn’t the be-all and end-all of gardening. Strange as it may seem to some people, many of these plants are old friends. The bougainvillea over my head (which also sheds leaves onto my keyboard) is more than a decade old. I know it well. Come February it will bloom a pale purple, much to my delight. The bracts will linger into late April. I could no more imagine leaving it out on the porch to freeze than I could do such a thing to our family cat. (Then again, plants never have ‘accidents’ on Oriental rugs.)

Being sentimental about a plant is, in my view, a very good trait. They bring us pleasure and prod our senses. They invoke memory. Sharing a window with a bougainvillea is a small price to pay for the reminder that spring will come again.

December 16, 2009

Oh, Christmas Tree

I grew up in Miami which is Christmas tree hell unless you consider decorated Norfolk Island pines to be festive. Back when I was a kid, as nearly as I can reconstruct events, a truck that probably left Nova Scotia sometime in August made its way down U.S. 1, shedding needles all the way, finally dumping a load of scorched Scotch pines in supermarket parking lots around the city on Thanksgiving day. We would go to a lot in our town, run by the Lions Club, and pick out a pathetic, five-foot-tall specimen. Its remaining needles would be brown long before Christmas Day, let alone New Years. (It should go without saying that this was long before Harry and David would ship you a fresh tree overnight.)

One of the benefits of moving north was to discover the joys of cutting a fresh tree and discovering that Fraser firs smell different than Balsams and that long-needled pines have plusses and minuses. Having been deprived of such things for so many years, I have sort of gone overboard for the past few decades, opting for ever-larger specimens. In Virginia, I once unceremoniously landed in a mud wallow trying to pull a ten-foot-diameter tree through a baler.

In Massachusetts, presented with the unlimited potential of an 18-foot-high ceiling in one room, I confess I went wild. (Although it must be pointed out that I was ‘enabled’ by Betty who, though she is a native New Yorker, is no less enamored of fresh trees.) We would make a day of it; hiking for hours across a hundred acres of trees arranged by type. To me, it was heaven.

Our tallest topped out at more than 14 feet, had a 25-foot circumference and was steadied by three guy wires to keep it upright in a stand that was seriously over its rated capacity. We found the tree in southern Rhode Island, 70 miles distant, and brought it home in a borrowed pickup truck, the tree strapped to and overhanging both ends of the truck. Rumbling up I-95, our truck with its cargo bore an uncanny resemblance to a Boeing 747 ferrying the Space Shuttle.

This year, we are in Giant Christmas Tree withdrawal. Because of a back injury, cutting our own tree was not a realistic option. Instead, we perused a lot in our town (run by the Lions Club, naturally) as well as commercial ventures that spring up for a few weeks each December. Further, we agreed ahead of time that decorating a tree off of a pair of eight-foot ladders as we have done in past years was not in the cards. Our 2009 tree would be no taller than eight feet.

What I discovered was that a) cut Christmas trees look a heck of a lot better than they did fifty years ago, and b) the cost ranges from reasonable to astronomical. Big John’s, the cut-your-own tree farm in Rhode Island that has been our source of yuletide greenery the past two years, charges $35 for any tree. Add in gas money and the price is still under $50 for that ideal tree, regardless of size.

The starting price for trees in the Lions lot was $45 for short-needled balsams that were guaranteed to start shedding needles as soon as we strapped it to our car. Fraser firs, our preferred trees, were $65 and up. A seven-foot one was $85 and had a gaping hole in one side.. While five dollars of the purchase price went to the Medfield Food Cupboard, we thought the cost too high.

We had heard that trees at Home Depot were fresh and realistically priced. Realistically priced, yes, but still packed so tightly from shipping that we felt we were choosing a dehydrated specimen to which we would need to add water. We passed. A ‘family’ tree lot in an adjacent town offered Bruce Springsteen carols (I had no idea) and great trees… for a hundred dollars. We passed again.

Our fallback position had always been to drive down to Big John’s and avail ourselves of one of the fresh-cut specimens they keep on hand for those in a hurry. Last Sunday morning we packed tea and cookies for the trip south but thought we’d stop at one more seasonal lot that appeared to have a large selection and a big turnover. To our amazement (and my wife’s back’s relief), we spotted a seven-foot Fraser fir that had no holes and looked quite fresh. And, at $40, it was more than fairly priced.

The tree is now tied up in our side yard, its branches fully extended. It isn’t as wide as one we’d cut for ourselves, but I’ve looked at it from every angle and I can’t find a hole or a bad spot. On Friday, as is our custom, the tree will be decorated. And, unlike previous years’ trees, this one won’t need guy wires to prevent a cat-induced tree felling.

December 2, 2009

The Long Goodbye to the Gardening Season

We had fresh lettuce as part of our Thanksgiving dinner last week. It was wonderfully crisp and almost sweet to the taste. It was picked, hours before we sat down to dinner, from the cold frame outside our garage door.
It is also possibly the last fresh lettuce we will see until next April. We may get lucky and pick a few dozen leaves in early December but, eventually, sub-freezing temperatures will render the cold frame inadequate against the onslaught of a New England winter. When the lettuce is gone, it will officially end the gardening season.

We relish our growing season and put aside that which can be stored to savor into the winter. There are carrots in the refrigerator and butternut squash in the basement and, if the last two years are any yardstick for the latter vegetable, we will scramble in February and March to give away the last of our bounty before age renders it inedible.

There are green beans; blanched and flash frozen, then placed in sandwich bags to be parceled out at meals between now and next June. There is okra, an underappreciated vegetable in the north that will nevertheless grace our jambalayas and stews for the next six months. And there is corn. The same, miserable weather that decimated our tomato and pea crop gave us the best corn ever. Because all the corn came at once, we blanched, de-cobbed and froze the kernels from dozens of ears. Remarkably, it is as sweet from the freezer as it was fresh from the field.

With the end of November we should put out our driveway markers and forget about plants. Perversely – and sometimes aided by our own hand – nature conspires to give us reminders of the season past and of the one to come. There is a Daphne along the sidewalk leading to our front door that continues to bloom though it has been hit repeatedly by freezing temperatures. There are Hellebores across from the Daphne that will bloom until covered by snow – and then stubbornly thrust up flowers when the snow melts.

When I go out to pick up the newspaper, I see a patch of Delosperma reliably putting up purple flowers. Now, I know why it’s called the ‘Ice Plant’. Nearby, a clutch of Galliarda, planted last year, is still flowering prolifically. There are Heucheras, no longer flowering, but still displaying leaves with bright palettes of color.

The first heavy snow will put an end to much of this late-autumn display. But for now, with the sun setting at 4:30 and gray afternoons more the norm than the exception, I take delight in these small reminders of the season past.

We live in New England by choice. There are parts of the country where November is just a slightly cooler month in an eternal summer. I grew up in such a place and, frankly, I don’t miss it. The changing seasons are mileposts to be noted and savored. Winter, even one that lasts four or five months, is just another of those mileposts. And, each year, it gives me a better appreciation for the spring that will follow.