Sunday, October 23, 2011

Stalking the Bramble

With the entrance of Scorpio, we're high into pie season and swiftly running down the bramble for berries.  Blackberries, late Raspberries, Black Raspberries, are our early fall ambassadors of the harvest to come, providing barbarous segue from summer nights to autumn mornings, flaunting dark berries ripe with juice; tangled, fat, and heavy.  It's the memory of near-fermented sugar in the mouth that tempts delicate trespass into a never- welcoming thicket, usually the first you see along the side of the road.  This time, a berry round-up was planned with like-minded conspirators.

My sister-in-law and I visited her best friend Jim near his 1-year anniversary of Hagg Lake property ownership.  If you've never been to Henry Hagg Lake, and I never had, it's 25 miles Southwest of Portland, sitting at the base of Oregon's coastal range in Gaston, Oregon.  Well, we were not on the lake but well above it, overlooking the 11 miles of shoreline while we explored some of the newly forested property near the high point, just past the giant boundary tree, a sentimental Douglas Fir oozing fresh sap in time with the changing beauty.

photo by Jim

Too close to sunset, we thought, we headed down into the hidden valley flanking the treeline to the West.  And there we stalked the bramble, arching our fingers to avoid conspicuous thorns, stepping delicately on the slippery mash of rotting bramble, leaves, and creek mud.  Trying not to fall because there is nothing to hold onto.  And if you do fall, the thorny bramble holds you in an unfriendly way.  Amid the drizzle, we worked our fingers sore filling empty collanders with our spoils.  I only fell once.  Falling was an education on how far I could safely reach, which meant leaving many a taunting arch full of gold star standards to hang heavy, waiting for the birds of tomorrow.

photo by Jim

As the dusk fell down upon us, we made our way back to a warmly lit home where Jim made us fresh blackberry pie.  It was so good!  He has graciously allowed me to share the recipe here.  It makes some of the prettiest napkin stains.    

photo by Jeni

From the Williams-Sonoma book: "Essentials of Baking". Master Recipe: Flaky Pie Pastry (with additional comments and alterations by Jim)

For double crust pie

2/3 cup cold unsalted butter (salted is ok too) (1 stick plus 1/6 cup)
6 Tbs cold vegetable shortening.  (I use Earth Balance)
2 2/3 cups flour (I make one of the cups whole wheat flour but you don't have to)
2 Tbs sugar  (optional, but hey....of course I add that)
1/2 tsp salt  (but if you use salted butter you can skip this)
8 Tbs ice water  (you might have to add more but add carefully)

Cut the butter and shortening into 3/4 inch pieces.

Using a Stand Mixer:

In a large bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, sugar, and salt.
Mix on low speed until blended, about 10 seconds.
Turn off mixer and add the butter and shortening and then continue mixing on slow speed just until
the mixture forms large peas, about 20 seconds.
Add the ice water 1 Tbs at a time, and mix on low speed just until the mixture begins to hold together, about 20 seconds. (add a bit more ice water if needed)
The dough will form large clumps and pull away from the sides of the bowl, but will not form a ball.  To test, stop the mixer and squeeze a small piece of dough; it should hold together.

Transfer the dough to a work surface. (lightly floured)
For the double crust pie, divide the dough in half and form each half into a 6-inch disk.  Wrap each disk tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled, about an hour or for up to overnight.

Now get about 6 to 8 cups of blackberries together.  Some recipes call for insane amounts of sugar to be added to the blackberries.  I think a cup is more than enough.  Don't be afraid to adjust that to taste whenever you make this pie until you get it just right.  A cup is fine.  A bit more if you're feeling generous.  Add 1/4 cup of tapioca to thicken the berries and keep the juice under control.  If you don't have tapioca you can add 1/2 cup flour.  Add some cinnamon.  I just shake a bunch on there but cinnamon adds a nice flavor to the pie.

Note: I forget the tapioca from time to time.  It's not the end of the world but it makes for a super juicy pie.  I mean, when you cut the pie there will be a lot of juice.  If you do that, just carefully ladle out some of the excess and you'll be fine.

When you're ready to pull out the dough disks and roll out the pie, pre heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Roll out that crust, top and bottom.  Assemble using a standard pyrex 24 cm (9.5 inch) glass pie dish. (lightly butter and flour inside)  Drop those berries in.   Put that top on and poke it with a fork a bunch of times to allow for venting.  Now slip that in the oven and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour until golden brown and bubbly.

Yeah, that's all there is to it.  When done, carefully pull it out of the oven and let it cool for a bit on a rack.

Serve warm with vanilla ice cream if you're feeling especially dangerous.

photo by Jim

photo by Jim

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Improving Water Efficiency in Lawns

There seem to be a couple of schools of thought on local lawns:  to have one or not to have one?  Some would say they're not environmentally friendly because of the high water demands on the commonly seeded perennial ryegrasses (Lolium perenne) to keep them looking good.  When well-watered and biannually fertilized, you're rewarded with lush, verdant grass that's great for toe-dipping on sunny, 75-degree days.  But are lawns a good choice in a time of increased water-consciousness and with the availability of less-thirsty lawn alternatives?  Is there such a thing as an environmentally-friendly lawn?  I say yes.  With lawns, you can have it both ways!  But it's not going to be seeded primarily with ryegrass, and it's not going to be thatched and full of weeds.

If you've got thirsty grass growing on a slow-draining soil, and you're not committed to summer watering, your lawn probably looks like ours, yellow and patchy where the moss is drying out in the summer heat.  It's time for a renovation.  And here are our options.

Building and Installing a French Drain:

Water drainage in backyards is a common problem, especially in rainy climates like the Northwest. If your soil content is high in compacted clay particles, as is common in many areas of Portland, then your lawn likely suffers from excess water that literally has nowhere to go.

A "french drain" is essentially a trench that gets dug along the most common route where the water is getting backed up. A pipe is laid down under the ground so the water can freely flow out of your yard and into the street or sewer system.

If your drainage problems aren't significant enough to require  a french drain, you are lucky!  The following method of renovation is much easier, and should suit your needs.  Two local experts make the case for covering your lawn with a 1/4" - 1/2" thick layer of commercially available (not home composted) compost product, seeded with your lawn mix of preference, then top-dressed with 1/4"-minus crushed rock.  

Metro's Carl Grimm, here on KATU news:

Portland Water Bureau's Sarah Santner on a local garden show, offering the same solid advice.

Wishing you a successful renovation!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Foxtail Lilies, How I Love You!

Eremurus are one of those seldom seen plants in local nurseries.  They're never on a sales table for long, since the bloom photos are so enchanting.  They're available in fall as packaged "bulbs" and again in spring as 1-gallon starts, but they're a little spendy, so it was several years of coveting before I finally bought a couple.  I'm not one for fall-planting bareroot in my yard, I like to plant starts so I know what I'm getting.   

Some assumptions of their appearance and preferred environment can be made from the common names Foxtail Lily and Desert Candle.  The bloom time is relatively short, but so beautiful you will cry (if you already have that tendency) when you see them open for the first time.  When provided a warm, well-drained location with ample light, they will reward you with tall stems of fat, bottlebrush spikes that multiply as the plants age and grow.  They're perennials, so you'll have them for many seasons.

The flowers come in a variety of colors:  white, pink, pastel orange (creamsicle), yellow, and more?  I'm growing the cultivar 'Cleopatra', with low-growing rosettes of spear-like foliage that emerged a soft grey-green, turning to blue-grey, with stems 12 - 18" tall.  The flower spikes are several feet tall, so that the tops of the spikes are at eye-level when I'm standing next to them.  So beautiful!  And bumblebees looooove them. 

If you can give them what they need but you don't see them around, try mail order.  I've even seen them for sale on e-bay.  Weird.

Starfish shaped root bundles for Fall mail order

early Spring growth

July 3, 2011

Bumble Bee delight!


Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hello, my name is Tillandsia

You've seen these epiphytic airplants displayed in terrariums, vivariums, and on wood mountings in a la mode shops and restaurants throughout the Northwest, in Portland at Clyde Commons, Stumptown at the Ace Hotel, Solabee, New Seasons and more.  Magazine pages are press-hot with modern reintroduction efforts to convince you you want one.....they're strangely appealing, so easy to care for, au courant.   But what are they?  And where do they come from?  They look like plants from outer space, and they come from...the internet, of course.

Those of you in the Bay Area (or with internet access to the Bay Area), seek out Paxton Gate SF on Valencia to find a unique selection of hand-blown vases in miniature.  The Hudson vase is by far the coolest, if you can find it in stock.  It's a 3-inch globe with 3 tiny "legs", and is the perfect size to house a very miniature airplant.  It's inconspicuously alien, complementing a wide range of personal styles indoors.  And due to the persuasiveness of literature, it's selling like crazy.  SF neighbor Flora Grubb also sells them in her store. Her photos are up at

Not wanting to travel with much glass, I only bought one of each.  My friend Shae took the Hudson vase home to NC, and I took a cube vase home to Oregon.  Shae named her airplant Bubba, and put him in a place of honor in her home.  I named mine Mama, and she sits in the kitchen windowsill.  Until I get a picture of Bubba at home, you'll only be seeing Mama.  But know that the possibilities for your own airplant vase and display are many...

They don't require a lot of care.  Due to that fact, vendors will tell you you can't kill these, but you can.  So don't feel too badly if you do.  They're relatively inexpensive, and worth a second or third try.  The more research you do about the variety you purchae, the better success you'll have.  Not all Tillandsias are created equal.  But it's not completely inaccurate to generalize that most are happy with bright, indirect light and regular misting with or soaking in distilled or chlorine-free room temperature water. 

For a broader selection that what you'll find in stores, try ordering online from Rainforest Flora, at  It's where Miss Grubb, and likely the whole west coast gets theirs.  Call and ask for Aaron for a little expert advice on caring for your purchase.   

Mama in Cube Vase

Airplants don't need soil to survive

Weekly Soaking

Tillies with Blue Coral Climbers

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Carnivorous Plants

Sorry I've been away!  I had a great opportunity to stay with a good friend in San Francisco while she was there attending an NCORE conference.  Shae and I grew up together in NC, and haven't had many opportunities to visit each other since my family relocated nearly 20 years ago.  We met at age 11 when she moved into my neighborhood, transferring schools in the fourth grade.  Both of us had pink plastic glasses that were too big for our face (as were common in the 80's), shared equal passions for clothes and candy, and were fiercely independent in a 4th-grade dependent sort of way.  Our friendship was immediate and has lasted more than 2 decades despite our living on opposite coasts for nearly half that time.  Across the miles and the years our lives have paralleled enough that we still tune to compatible frequencies.  So this was a must!  To learn more about NCORE and what brought us to SF in the first place, follow the link below.

I'll post more on our SF adventures, but today am focusing on carnivorous plants, some amazing specimens of which are housed at Golden Gate Park's Conservatory of Flowers.  Nepenthes and Venus Fly Traps were both on view.  I don't recall seeing my favorite, the Sarracenias - also called Cobra Lilies, but found each atrium mind-blowingly cool, though literally warm enough that jackets had to be removed to avoid passing out.

For anyone new to carnivorous plants, this short little video is a succintly great primer.

People are fascinated by the carnivorous nature of these plants!  During my Urban Flora days we sold lots of the Nepenthes, but for reasons I don't recall never had many of the Sarracenias on hand. So I was delighted to see Xera Plants peddling a few small, striking cultivars at close-in retail locations such as Portland Nursery and Pistils this spring. The species' small statures make them perfect for home terrariums, windowsills, or small bog gardens.  Here's one I put together for our upstairs window table.

Hanging in the photo below is one of the amazing Nepenthes specimens from the Conservatory of Flowers.  If you ever have the opportunity to visit, go!  I'd read mixed reviews, and so went in expecting to be less than impressed and was pleasantly surprised at the incredible displays.  And for kicks, we sat down to an impromptu concert outside where a blond pixie punk in tattered organza sang from a low spot on the lawn in a soaring operatic voice while her companion provided violin accompaniment in city punk stretched earlobes and aftermath rags.  They had a good-sized crowd, held static by the immeasurable weight of heavy, low clouds on an incentive to mobilize.  We stayed long enough to cool off, and then were off to the next adventure.....


Saturday, May 28, 2011

What Fuels Your Garden?

When starting up garden projects, or before taking on an hour or two of weeding, it's important to have the proper fuel.  During winter and early spring when it's still cold, I can easily motivate for the promise of a glass of wine after the work is done.  But during summers and other random spells of warmth, all motivation is on ice.  I've recently become a regular consumer of Guayaki Yerba Mate's Enlighten Mint.  I love the brand but hate single-serving packaging, so as the weather warms up we'll make pitchers of it steeped with bulk-bagged dry leaves, and fresh orange-mint from the garden.  Nothing fuels our garden more effectively.  Last summer, I had two favorites:  a basil-honey lemonade, and a cranberry-honey Mate.  If you're a basil lover, you will probably LOVE the iced citrus combination.  But a garden isn't built on sugar alone.  There must be some caffeine somewhere!  This is Portland, afterall.

Last year I was fooled by the early appearance of late-spring warmth, and planted out our seedlings too early.  This year our cool temperatures are a little precocious, so in order to avoid an encore failure, I broke down and purchased veggie and herb starts from local nurseries.  I love the invitation of seed starting, the promise of something created from tiny, unpromising looking varied-color orbs and oblong shapes.

We're trying out a couple new Basil varieties this year, "Dani Lemon", and "Super Sweet Chen".  It's still early out for them if unprotected, so they're sitting under the sunny eaves next to the house for warmth and dryness.  We'll have another month to wait for lemonade from our own basil harvest.

Years (and years!) ago, I was hired by the Rob & Michelle Mitchell for one of my very first jobs, waiting tables in a small, friendly restaurant with Sundance quality food.  I still crave the roast chickens, spinach fettucine with mustard-alfredo sauce, and the espresso milkshakes.  I had my first honest experience with espresso there.  In a long-running joke, all glasses were tipped to the mouth with pinky fingers extended.  The lemonade was always a summer hit, and drinking it reminds me of the hilarious banter and pseudo-philosophical backroom exchanges between tables.

This is our favorite Basil Lemonade recipe, adapted from our friends now in San Diego, the Mitchell Clan.  You can see what they're up to these days at

Basil Honey Lemonade

12 oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
7 oz. honey (add hot water to 2 C. to help it melt)
7 oz. sugar - or to taste, this may be too much if you don't have a sweet tooth 
(add hot water to 2 C. to help it melt)

Mix the above together, then add 10-1/2 C. cold water
Stir in 1/2 cup  firmly packed fresh basil leaves, torn (one .75-oz. pkg.)

*optional* garnish with fresh basil leaves and lemon or lime slices

courtesy of

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Glass Gardens No. 4

After a weekend spent weeding and mulching the yard (thankyou Grimm's for the fine, dark mulch), and another setting up some inexpensive drip irrigation hoses through the ornamental beds, I got to have some more fun with glass gardens.

I wanted to use up all the moss from my first collecting, and display other colorful characters recently brought home.  The trick is to get them situated before they've been around too long.

The little landscape painter seen here is housed in a wine decanter.  Last week I saw some pretty cool decanters in Kobo's Coffeehouse NW, selling for around $30.  The Scilla bulb now lives in this great beaker that I picked up at Paxton Gate in North PDX.  If you're ever over that way, they're worth checking out.  You can preview them here.

Let me know what you think!

Landscape Painter No.1

Landscape Painter No.2

Scilla without pebbles

Scilla with beach glass & coral