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

Friday, May 20, 2011

Falling in Love with China Blue

We have a new China Blue Vine, Holboellia coriacea.  A long delayed purchase recommended years ago by veteran nursery folks due to its polite and shade-tolerant, evergreen vining nature.  That, and the promise of lovely, unusual flowers in the 3rd or 4th spring (May) after planting, as well as blueish-purple, sweetly edible fruits in the fall.  Without buds, it could easily be mistaken for an evergreen Clematis variety.  However, if you come face to face with it in your plant searching, and let your eyes dwell on it a moment, you will recognize a delicate (non-aggressive) confidence in its twining, and a calmer demeanor.  I'm a fan of some types of Clematis, and have an 'Early Sensation' that is really enjoyed by all in view of it, but I swear you will detect a difference in China Blue.  

At least one cultivar is locally grown and sold (by Xera Nursery).  Both seem to come and go quickly from the local nurseries.  I've never seen more than a dozen plants in one location before, so if you're entertaining the adoption don't hesitate too long, or you'll be waiting another year for yours.  

So far it has enjoyed our morning sun location, sitting in rich, well-drained soil, and given regular water.  It's predicted to quickly fill our little trellis and provide a nice background for our columnar apple and surrounding daylilies.  It will attach itself to your trellis, no tying required.  And it's hardy to approximately 0 degrees F.  In order to ensure winter hardiness, bury it several inches deep at planting and mulch heavily in the fall.  And of course, let me know how yours does!

Newly Planted

Growing Quickly...

Backing up our Scarlet Sentinel


Problems with Terrariums

If you've ever made a terrarium, or are interested but haven't done it yet, you may have discovered or considered they're not always maintenance free.  Depending on the plants chosen, soil sterility at time of planting, size of your jar's opening, light exposure, etc... you may run into problems with grey mold, fungus gnats, slime, or inexplicably sad-looking plants.  Follow the link below for a really great Q&A providing advice on terrarium problems.  And don't let the problems discourage you.  You can always clean out your container and start over, but if you've had a bug or fungal problem try to sterilize your container before replanting.  Good luck!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Little Garden Birds

Though I often work in the presence/periphery of avid birders, I haven't yet caught the bug.  Thus far, my enjoyment of non-plant life has been ambient and generally inclusive.  My mom recently reminded me that while growing up I had strange pets:  hermit crabs, tadpoles, turtles, and rats.  That's what happens when you have 3 older brothers, who themselves had a strange menagerie of "pets".  Specifically, that's what happens when you have 3 older brothers, your backyard is woods, and your parents encourage outdoors discovery.

I'm pretty sure the tadpoles only lasted until they had legs.  They lived in a yellow notecard box, the type you own in elemetary school for word memorization.  At a slightly larger than 3 x 5 size, holding approximately 2 cups of water, I thought I'd provided them an adequate pool for their happiness.  But something larger than that little pool of public drinking water was calling them.  I watched their growth with fascination until one morning they were gone.  Though I searched all over for them, I never did find a trace.

Well, it's been years since I last had the responsibilities of a pet.  These days, in order to make my connection with the rest of life, I garden.  And the garden brings them in.  One by one, the neighborhood cats, dogs, chickens, ducks, birds, squirrels, mice, raccoons, bees, and more come calling.  They come for various reasons.  The chickens and ducks (our neighbors just brought home Runner Ducks) come to grub through the newly laid mulch.  Raccoons come stalking the chickens.  Flying birds come to bathe in the fountain and eat our dandelion seeds, vegetables, and greens.  Cats slink around, stalking the birds.  The squirrels come to plant walnuts and nest in the trees.  And mice live in the wood pile.

Females in the background / photo courtesy of
Lately, I've been making some very amateur observations of our avian friends.  Yesterday, I saw Lesser Goldfinches eating our Giant Winter Spinach, which surprised me for two reasons.  First, I had no idea little birds ate greens.  The second is that of course they eat greens.  So I read up on them a little and learned that they eat more than available seed when opportunity presents, preferring mashed boiled eggs, dried fruits, veggies, herbs / greens and even superfoods, such as bee pollen.

Lesser Goldfinches are found in much of North America, from Texas heading West.  Here's what the male looks like, the Willamette Valley species having a back more green than black.  They frequently forage urban and suburban gardens, so take a look outside today and you may meet one.
Photo courtesy of Squaw Creek

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Epiphyllum's Ephemeral Bloom

Saturday is the perfect day for Tiamat, our new Epiphyllum, to show off.  We're sitting over breakfast together for the first morning of the week, and there she is leaning towards us with a shocking fuchsia bloom called 'Dragon Heart'.  The bloom itself stretches 6 inches across by 6 inches high.  The weight of it bends her, but not to breaking.  We're both amazed at our little one.  The promise of the bloom was no exaggeration.

Tiamat is the all-birthing sea, the unconscious mind, ever-changing in form, the saltwater of blood and tears: elemental, both creative and destructive, neither evil nor good.  And certainly beautiful.  

If you've never owned an Epiphyllum, they're an easy and rewarding companion plant.  (By companion, I mean that the interaction with Epiphyllums is more personal than with many other plants.  Some you bring home, and they quietly hold up a corner of dappled light, but this one will always look like a guest.)  They are the "Orchid Cactus" or "Christmas Cactus" that used to be more commonly exchanged as household gifts.  Their short list of preferred conditions they easily adapt out of.  Discovered living in treetop debris in moderately warm, wet environments, they're considered tropical plants, but I've even had success growing them in the dry climate of central Utah, and feel confident these are a good houseplant for beginners and experts alike.

I've found a lot of easily read care information at the following website.  Don't be discouraged by the particulars.  Just find a tray of them in the houseplant section next time you're at Portland Nursery and pick the one that picks you.  If you missed the shipment, scour other nurseries for them, or order one online.  Keep it in a window with morning light, provide regular humidity, and do not overwater.  You won't regret it!

Tiamat in Bloom, May 2011

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Giant Winter Spinach

It's early May, but it feels like March.  The temperatures have remained cool enough to keep my Giant Winter Spinach first in the running for most successful overwintering leafy green in my planter boxes.  Yes, we have Rhubarb, Strawberries, Blueberries, Raspberries, Orange Mint, Yerba Buena, Oregon Grape, Sorrel, Romaine, Radicchio, Violets, Pineapple Guava, Apples, Poppies and more mixed in the ornamental beds, but our 2 little planter boxes are reserved for Peas, Spinach, Chard, Basil and Tomatoes.  All could be easily mixed in the remaining landscape, but the planter boxes came first, before we had time to devote to ornamental cultivation and conscious expansion.  (Are you familiar with the saying "The cobbler's son wears no shoes"?)  And we enjoy the quasi-structured feel of keeping the short-season crops in a devoted space (even though the boxes are small, we still practice rotation).

We like tomatoes as much as you, but are exercising patience this year and holding off on planting.  Last year the late-season rains drowned so many of our seedlings (if only we'd had a little cold-frame set-up then - a gardener's umbrella to weather the wet), the size of our plant graveyard nearly doubled.  Boo hoo, right?  You sort of get used to it.  Still, we like to honor our little friends...

Photo Courtesy of Watchful Creatures

Well, in looking back to see where I got this Giant Winter Spinach seed from, I found the excellent website, full of easy explanations for edible gardening.  In their words, "Spinach prefers the cool, sunny weather of late spring and early fall. If you simply must have summer spinach, provide partial shade, plant the seed deeper and water copiously. Spinach adores rich soil: amend the spinach bed well with compost and/or manure, dolomite lime and complete organic fertilizer. Keep the bed evenly moist and weeded. Early thinnings are wonderful for spring salads. For the kitchen gardener, it is practical to harvest by using the outer leaves from each plant or by cutting the whole plant, leaving 1” for possible regrowth. Or, broadcast seed and grow as a ‘cut and come again’ crop of tender leaves."  Here's what ours looks like today!

P.S.  It tastes great too.  Happy Mother's Day!

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Violet Cocktail, For the Modern Victorian

Violet Fizz (The Bubbly Bar)

4 oz Prosecco 
1/2 oz Homemade Violet Syrup (see April post for recipe)
1 oz Delicate Gin
Juice of 1/2 Lemon
1/2 oz Pasteurized Egg White
* optional garnish, 2 Pieces of Candied Violet

Pour the prosecco into a cocktail glass
Combine other ingredients in a shaker
Shake with ice until well chilled
Strain into cocktail glass
* garnish with candied violet

Perfect for an old-skool ladies luncheon, a bridal tea party, or any breezy afternoon suited for no more than bloomers outdoors.  It sounds afternoon daydreamy, sweetly ladylike and completely unnecessary, which is enough to appeal to me.

Photo courtesy of Old Prints

Viola Hearththrob

I'm often keeping my eyes peeled on Terra Nova Nursery's new plant introductions.  They paint with a bold palette, bringing eye-candy goodness to life, animating lovely and envious new things.

Now, my feet are firmly rooted on our soggy terra firma, but my head is sometimes off in the clouds.  It's not always the "novelty" plant, the hoop-jumping lion of the green world, that will seduce and literally bust my pocketbook (the zipper of which has long since been looted by trespass), but it's often a good old-fashioned charmer, an ornamental staple that I end up gently hauling home, for I have a rational side as well.

I have kept a nursery tag for 1 of every plant species I own or once owned that was more of a novelty for me, if only when I bought it.  Every gardener starts at the beginning, right?  I look through the stack each new year, and honestly remember many lost plants - some went back to the earth by way of the compost bin, some went home with friends, some are still thriving at a previous address or two.  And by this process, I'm able to better resist the newbies of each successive year.

Well, last fall after a brief introduction, I brought home another circus lion, a younger version of an old favorite, a variegated Viola called "Heartthrob".  It's just waking up from winter, and we're fighting the slugs together.  So I have yet to see how it will perform in our little space, but it's already showing signs of longevity, having survived two transplants, our cold winter, and a spring onslaught of slug armies.

This is what it looked like when I brought it home!

Photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nursery