July 30, 2010

Wretched Excess

In our 20-foot-by-65-foot vegetable garden we grow corn, okra, lettuce, chard, dill, carrots, summer squash, winter squash, artichokes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, basil, leeks, beets…. and green beans.

I have no argument with the first 15 items on the list. There is nothing so flavorful as sweet corn eaten minutes after it was picked or a salad topped with tomatoes still warm from the vine. These are the reasons we garden. Even when there is excess (think zucchini), there are friends with whom to share the bounty or, if your friends begin avoiding you because they know you come bearing suitcases full of the stuff, you can foist the surplus on people who unsuspectingly leave their car windows rolled down in parking lots. We have disposed of zucchini in exactly that fashion on more than one occasion.

But zucchini is a vegetable that must be eaten fresh. No one would ever think of canning or freezing summer squash because they’d find nothing but mush when they sampled it in January. Not so green beans. Green beans have pretty much the same taste and texture whether they’re eaten fresh or frozen.

For reasons I cannot fathom, this year Betty planted two ‘wide rows’ and one ‘standard’ row of green beans, with the idea that we’d freeze what we didn’t immediately eat. She apparently used varieties with names like ‘Maxi-Yield’ and ‘Garden-Glut’ because we began getting green beans at the beginning of July and are now picking – and I promise I am not making this up –five pounds or more of beans from of the garden every day.

The first week was wonderful. The yield was maybe 20 or 30 long, luscious beans a day, perhaps ten minutes worth of picking in the cool late afternoon. Once home, we pinched off the ends, threw them in a dish, steamed them for three minutes and we had fresh, delicious green beans; high in vitamins and good for us to boot.

Then the yield bounced up to about 60 green beans a day. Fifteen minutes of picking and ten minutes of snipping ends. OK, we cooked half and froze half (two minutes in boiling water, then rinse under cold water to stop the cooking, arrange the beans on a tray, stick them in the freezer overnight, then bag them and return them to the freezer until needed). I could cope with that.

But then both double rows went into full production. Suddenly, we were spending more than half an hour spent stooped over picking under a blazing sun with suffocating humidity, pinching ends for another 45 minutes, and then lining up green beans on trays for half an hour. First, it was one double-decked tray of beans to blanch and freeze and then two double-decked trays. One night this week we processed two double trays and still had green beans left over. Did I mention we are running out of space in our freezer?

Dealing with the excess has required ingenuity. Our town’s food cupboard had only one distribution in July, which didn’t make a dent in the surplus. Thankfully, there’s another this week. At last week’s Wednesday Evening at Elm Bank lecture, we offered green beans as kind of party favors to thank people for coming. This morning, a friend brought us two baskets of blackberries. She left groaning under the unexpected weight of more than five pounds of green beans. Fortunately, she’s a Vegan. Unfortunately, her children are at camp.

The last row of green beans, a standard-width one, was planted late, intended for September production. For the past week I have been guiding runners from the winter squash toward the young plants. With luck, by the time the green bean plants should be flowering, they’ll instead be engulfed by squash leaves. They will not be missed.

There is joy in seeing plants first emerging from the ground in May and early June. Alas, the mind does not contemplate the work that will be involved when, as in the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, the green beans keep maturing by the hundreds every day, demanding to be picked. The great gardening guru Roger Swain calls one of the joys of summer the ‘wretched excess’ from the garden. This July and August, being a grower of green beans makes it easy to understand the ‘wretched’ part of that statement.

July 25, 2010

More Gardens by the Sea

Yesterday’s forecast for Boston included oppressive humidity and temperatures near ninety. In short, a perfect day to be in Maine. And so, armed with the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days directory, we set out early in the morning for Kittery, just over the New Hampshire border.

What most people know of Kittery is the unfortunate collection of outlet malls that beckon at the first few exits of the Maine Turnpike. In stark contrast and just a few miles away, Route 103 hugs the coastline, offering a picture postcard view that has changed little in half a century. The Conservancy put together three gardens in Kittery, two of them on the ocean and the third on a marsh with ocean views. Herewith, a report, alas, without photos of the first garden.

What more do you need to say about a garden whose owners are thoughtful enough to provide live music for your enjoyment? Four generations of one family have lived for roughly 90 years at what is now a compound on Pepperell Cove, with generous views back to the Piscataqua River. A common garden binds what is probably five acres, three homes, a pool house and a wonderful, freestanding English greenhouse. The gardens are heavy on lilies and dahlias. They flow in a delightful pattern, following the natural contours of the land. An undulating daylily border follows the shape of the cove.

This is a garden that, while probably aided and abetted by outside maintenance, is definitely one individual’s vision. The identifying tags are hand-lettered and the breadth of specimens bespeaks a passion for the genus Liliaceae. The eye for the unusual also shows in the placement of specimens that punctuate the gardens. For example, on one side of the kitchen garden was a blackberry lily (Belamcanda chinensis which is not a true lily but, rather, part of the Iridaceae family). A few feet away, a pale blue Lisianthus bloomed shyly amid brassier specimens.

The music was an unexpected but welcome accompaniment. A guitarist and a keyboard/horn player offered soft, new-age-type music. There was a marvelous off-shore breeze that kept the air temperature in the low seventies. We could have stayed all day.

Usually because of a desire for privacy, the ownership and history of most Open Days gardens are limited to the names of the owners, and sometimes not even that. No so Braveboat Harbor Farm, where the legacy of Calvin and Cynthia Hosmer is everywhere. Most poignantly, there is a memorial bench overlooking the ocean. The Hosmer’s names are inscribed on the bench and, in the center, embedded in the granite, is Cynthia Hosmer’s wedding ring and the date, December 28, 1928. The Hosmers purchased the point of land in the late 1940s, spent six years clearing brush, and nearly fifty years creating a garden. While I neglected to bring a camera, I located some very nice photos taken by Karl Gercens in 2009. The middle one is of the memorial bench.

The garden, while attractive, is somewhat overwhelmed by its setting. There is a mown path to the rugged shoreline and a walk along that shoreline, from which not a single house is visible. The Hosmers were avid conservationists and deeded an easement on the bulk of their property decades ago. Instead of shingle-pile megamansions, there is only ocean, rock and a windswept meadow. What a legacy.

The third Open Days property billed itself as a ‘gardener’s garden’. It could be more correctly called a ‘landscaper’s garden’, an instantly mature garden put together at great cost within the past few years and destined to be ripped apart as the plantings outgrow their allotted spaces. It was beautiful, but it was also the least interesting of the three gardens.

July 18, 2010

A Garden by the Sea

When the temperature hits the nineties and the dew point soars into the mid-70s, most people hit the mall, the beach or the air conditioner control. Gardeners, on the other hand… go visit gardens. And so, yesterday, with the thermometer registering 93 degrees, we visited four of them.

Three were part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program, which focused on the town of Dartmouth. Dartmouth, in turn, is on Buzzard’s Bay next to New Bedford and the prospect of a cool, off-shore breeze added to the anticipation of the day. There was a refreshing breeze, though alas, from some direction other than the bay.

Garden owners write their own descriptions for the Open Days Directory and those paragraphs say as much about the people involved as their properties. When we were chosen in 2008, the Garden Conservancy’s form came with a plea to hold the description down to 150 words and to keep it factual. Through assiduous re-writing we got ours down to 148 words with nary an adjective in sight.

As a result of our own experience, we tend to rule gardens in or out based in large part on the clues in the descriptions. One open garden yesterday began with this sentence, ‘Come see one of the most gorgeous properties on the South Coast.’ It may have been the most beautiful property on any coast, but there was something off-putting about the boast. Another garden owner tipped his or her hat to no fewer than six designers. We took a pass on both gardens.

But one garden description in particular caught our attention, It was spare in its wording and focused on providing an overall feel of what the visitor would see. So, after an obligatory visit to Frog Landing (designer Nan Sinton’s terrific garden) we set out for Sea Thrift.

Sea Thrift sits on six acres at the head of Apponagansett Bay and the owner has a pleasant view down to the water. The rambling house, built by a whale ship captain, dates to 1860. What was delightful about the garden was that it didn’t overwhelm the visitor, yet it showed intelligence and a keen eye for horticulture (a two-page description of plantings including full binomial nomenclature was available at the check-in table). There were more than 40 varieties of Japanese maples scattered around the property, as well as a specimen columnar Acer saccharum ‘Newton’s Sentry’ that was a virtual 30-foot-tall flagpole.

The property was full of surprises: woodland trails that provided cool shade on a hot day, sitting areas with bring-a-smile-to-your face lawn furniture, and striking juxtapositions of texture and color in unexpected places. After we walked the property, the homeowner was generous with his time in explaining some of the thinking that went into the design.  The three photos in this post were taken yesterday at Sea Thrift.  Double click in them to get a more detailed view.

Sea Thrift was the kind of garden you hope for on a hot summer day; a garden you learn from. A garden that sends you away smiling.

July 5, 2010

"Knee High by the Fourth of July"? Guess again!

If I don't write a lot about our vegetable garden, it's because vegetables are... well, boring.  ("Plant a radish, get a radish not a Brussels sprout...")  When ever I read someone waxing rhapsodic about the joys of wide rows or some new kind of beet, I turn the page. 

And so here is a mercifully brief update on our vegetable garden, which is not on our property but, rather, is part of the Community Garden a mile away.  We have a 20'x65' plot, intensely planted at this point with lettuce, beets, chard, dill, green beans, okra, peas, summer squash, winter squash, tomatoes, eggplant, artichokes(!) basil, carrots, parsnips, peppers, leeks, onions... and corn.

There are three squares of corn, each at least five rows by roughly ten plants.  We planted the first square with a variety called 'Quickie' from Pinetree Seeds on May 15, two weeks earlier than is considered safe in New England. Spring thus far had been warmer and wetter than normal and so we decided to push our luck.  Quickie is, as the name implies, a fast-growing corn - 65 days from planting to maturity.  It's a hybrid, bi-color corn that is advertised as being especially sweet for northern climates.

There's an old saw about corn's progress: 'knee-high by the Fourth of July'.  Quickie met that standard by mid-June.  As the accompanying photo attests, this corn has, 49 days after planting, reached a height of nearly five feet.  The stalks have already tasseled out and each one bears several ears.  The corn is obviously immature, but July 20 seems like a realistic date to be enjoying fresh corn.

As to the rest of the garden, we're enjoying lettuce, peas, chard, herbs and beets; and our first zuccini is ready to pick.  Double-click on the photo at right to get a sense of how the garden is designed.

(Follow-up note:  we picked our first sweet, ripe ear of 'Quickie' corn on July 15. )