Thursday, April 15, 2010

Year Round Gardening

NYBG Barbara Garden Lecture
Barbara Damrosch
Year Round Gardening

The second lecture in the New York Botanical Garden 2010 Lecture Series, “From the Ground Up: Gardens Re-Imagined” featured the renowned yet practical Barbara Damrosch.  I love Barbara’s book, The Garden Primer.  It is one of my most favorite how-to garden books. 

She and her husband Eliot work a garden/farm in Maine -- Four Season Farm - with pretty much a year-round crop of vegetables.
The NYBG brochure hails them as a “model of small-scale sustainable gardening.”

The popularity and seduction of Barbara’s garden style is not that it’s the Next Big Thing (hello, green walls!) but rather it’s the Last Big Thing – meaning the best thing.  
Barbara’s approach to garden style is to practice the tried and true garden lessons that have served us successfully over the generations. 

It is all so elegant in its simplicity. 
At the same time, it’s a lot of work, no doubt. Yet, what could be more satisfying and pleasurable than to grow your own delicious, fresh food?

The bucketful of growing your own food benefits are well known: cost-effective, energy-efficient, healthful, safe, good exercise, fun, empowering, getting what you want/greater variety and so on…

But nothing beats the pure luxury of taste J

One thing that struck me about Barbara’s garden practices is how she practices “Serialized Gardening.” 
This continual successive plantings and interplantings allow for more yields from even a comparatively small parcel of land or even from containers.
It gives the lie to those who argue, “But I have no space to grow food.”
Or those that say, “All that work for one salad!”  (I admit, in the early years of my gardening, I invested in a baby or miniature vegetable garden and that one salad did make me feel a bit silly.)

Barbara shared the fact that their garden produces approximately $80,000 worth of produce per acre.  They have about 40 acres under management in what is a 3-season garden/farm.  This effort and claim supports a point I’ve heard made by foodies and chefs and real farmers. I’ve heard Dan Barber, chef from Blue Hill restaurant and a James Beard award winner posit how the naysayers believe we can’t grow enough food to feed the population with smart, sustainable agriculture – well, we’re not doing that now with big corporate farms. There are people who are starving.  And then there’s that pesky issue of mold, e Coli, and corn in everything.  And don’t get me started on processed food…

Back to the Farm

Barbara and her family team plant in grids on a 12” x 12” or 30” beds.
She said she loves using a 29” wide rake she concocted – with red markers over the tines – to make the plant rows. 

It looked like a brilliant way to make the 4-row, tick tack toe schematic for the beds

With her relaxed and confident way and with the use of big screen images, Barbara took us on a seasonal walk in her gardens. She demonstrated the succession plantings.  They use cold frames and small greenhouse off the kitchen to claim fresh food even in winter. They don’t do any canning or freezing – everything is always fresh.
The pictures of the entire crew and family enjoying the bounty of the garden at mealtime would make Norman Rockwell groan… Beautiful.

She had me at fresh all year round – but if that wasn’t enough, Barbara pointed out that cultivating successively in a densely packed garden will also keep the weeds down. 
At the most, once a week they use a “Culinary Hoe” that they invented and sell.  It has a blade on a long handle that allows you to skim the surface of the bed without having to get in the bed.  Much easier.  Brilliant solution.
She also said that healthy gardens are not hospitable to “bad” insects or pathogens. 
A most natural pest control occurs when the plants are healthy.  Pests are attracted to gardens that are stressed. How do they know??
So short of downward facing dog, er dogwood J no yoga for the garden – just keep it healthy.
I heard this admonishment echoed at an NYBG Companion Planting class at Stone Barns recently. 
Good advice.
Barbara had us all smiling with their most natural slug patrol:  Ducks.
And they built glamorous duck digs for them, calling it, what else, “Duckingham Palace!”

Not surprisingly, Barbara rhapsodized about the glories and beauty and utility of making compost.  “It makes it all work,” she claimed. “It’s the magic bullet.”
What in her compost?  Mainly kitchen waste and manure. The balance is a balance of green and brown.  She characterizes Brown as Fuel:  straw, spent hay, leaves in moderation.  Green is Nitrogen: grass clippings, kitchen waste and manure
She showed us how they build their 6-sided, wire compost bins.
Somewhat conspiratorially, she leaned in with a Secret!  “Whenever the compost is empty (“How could that ever be,” I thought?!)  They stick a funnel and replace with carrots or Asian greens, etc that will grow in the environment and then they restock the compost in the summer but have a crop in the meantime!

I would characterize a homegrown garden’s ability to provide a more robust, varied selection of food – an unlimited collection of even rare, or culturally exotic vegetables as another real luxury of growing a garden. 
For much of the audience, it seemed one of the more interesting crops Barbara showed was frisse raised the European way – using “hats” to keep the frisse white.  So cute.
Here is a picture of Chef Eberhard Mueller at his Satur Farms showing how he put frisse on the growing list, using his European background to produce one of his most favorite and delicious greens.
I took this picture last summer while we were at Satur Farms for the photo shoot for my book, "The Long Island Homegrown Cookbook," that will feature master chefs and their garden inspiration.  Along with recipes and garden art and plant lists....

At Four Season Farm, they employ the use of cold frames and greenhouses to realize their fresh food even in the winter.  They placed the greenhouse right outside their kitchen and pantry!  Based on her husband, Eliot’s design, their moveable green houses for commercial sale.  Barbara sang the praises of the Socrates cukes, peppers and eggplants grown in the greenhouse and the spectacular yields they’ve been able to achieve.

I learned a lot from Barbara’s lecture – about smart gardening practices, tools, edible landscaping and common sense, seasonal gardening tips. 
I also enjoyed hearing from a gardener who sincerely loves and respects growing and eating fresh, great-tasting food. 

She was also gracious enough to provide a flyer with a list of resources: for seeds, cold frames, and tools designed by her husband, Eliot Coleman (and an author in his own right)

Companies that offer greenhouse models based on Eliot's designs but that they have no financial connection with any of them (I have to ask, "Why not?! ^:^)

Barbara took a number of questions from the audience and then signed copies of her new, revised book.

Here I am with Barbara:

The book sold out that day -- but you can order here:

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

2010 Garden Lecture Reviews

From the Ground Up: Gardens Re-Imagined

The theme uniting this year’s lecture series at The New York Botanical Garden (
was sustainability.  
Sustainable garden designs. 
I can’t deny that all great garden designers have pretty much always practiced “sustainable, creative, practical garden designs” (as the NYBG brochure explained).

Nevertheless, the series was entertaining, informational and topical. 
The atmosphere surrounding the lecture is horticulturally collegial – we garden sprites get to mingle with fellow garden and plant lovers. 
Bookending my Lecture Series experiences was high drama and zen serenity. 

First Lecture:  Englishman Dan Pearson
Into The Wild

Spirit: Garden Inspiration

“You seem so calm… ”We’re so late,” I sidelined to Phyllis Odessey from Randall’s Island as we walked to the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) lecture from the train station. (Manhattanites must take the train from Grand Central a few stops north.)

Well, truth be told, I was scurrying and Phyllis was the picture of calm, garden peacefulness. 
“It doesn’t start till eleven. “ she said. 

“No, it started at ten.” I advised.    I wanted to explain, but was conflicted about slowing down to do so. 

“What?” Phyllis exclaimed.  If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have come…” 

While slaloming in around the parked cars, I shot back to her the drama of my commuting saga: missed the 9:25 morning train from Grand Central because my MetroCard came up “insufficient” funds from the swipe at Union Square that in turn made me have to reenter the subway station from the other side of the street.  

Finally, we were inside, ushered immediately through registration like VIPs. 
(Well, there wasn’t anyone else waiting at that point, either.)

As if on cue, we split up at the door to the lecture hall door to find any available seats. 
It’s packed.  SRO.

But what was bad news for the capacity audience, turned out to be great news for us:  NYBG’s vice president, Todd Forrest (in a “you can’t make this stuff up name game, he was the curator of the Garden’s Forest at one time!) kicked off the lecture – and talked a bit long, we were told later -- for about 30 minutes…
That overture, coupled with Dan Pearson’s preamble about his early childhood, put us in the perfect time zone for being seated just as the meat of the lecture got under way. 

Thanks for waiting for us.

Qu’elle chance, after all J

I could listen to Dan read the phone book (lovely British accent) and his dreamy, good-looking-Paul McCartney-Beatle countenance makes for added visual stage presence. 
Given his rock star status as an international landscape architect, the analogy is not too far off the mark. 

Dan visually displayed work from his portfolio while providing the back story of how he got the jobs – very amusing tales; his inspiration for the garden designs: employing a very strong sense of place, amplifying that with indigenous plants, along with manifesting the owner’s garden style.

You had to be there to appreciate Dan’s demeanor. 
In part, it helps explain his seemingly spiritual, ethereal commitment to natural gardening -- to creating gardens found in your dreams. 

Dan is the kind of artist who always knew his calling. 
Early on, he recalled, he was told to “Follow your heart.”  
After seeing Wisely and Sissinghurst gardens and the Valley of The Flowers, it’s no wonder he claims to have known then he wanted to emulate nature– not control garden spaces. 

Dan took the opportunity to speak about his devotion to using a collection of plants. 
He prefers to employ a very large palette of plants in his designs. 
He plants to encourage wildlife in the garden and to maximize an outdoor space to better experience every season. 
He reminded us of the sheer beauty of a garden’s ability to constantly change. 
It’s never boring.  (Don’t over manage a garden.  It’s silly)

He regaled the audience with the story of how he was hired to redesign a family estate garden in Torrecchia, Italy. 
The wife saw his work at the Chelsea Flower Show while in attendance; phones him the next day to confirm he’ll take the commission; June 1st he is flown to Rome and she picks him up in her small red convertible sports car.
Drives very, very, very fast to the “medieval hill village of her family – while chain smoking!

In describing a Los Angeles garden design – especially the hardscape - he demonstrated how good gardens reflect that ‘sense of place’  -- a contextual classicism that is never out of style -- that unique “only-here” feeling that mimics Mother Nature’s local “look.” 

He also said “A garden is like a good clothes horse.”
In other words, the plants will make the structure - - or the “bones” of the garden sparkle in every season, while always connecting with the owner’s style.

Did I say I loved Dan’s use of fashion-as-style metaphors and artsy references?!

His work went on to embrace large land forms – architectural gems he creates that are vast, rugged. 

One of his earlier designs like this is the Yorkshire Broughton Hall, located not far from Leeds in England. 

I was charmed by his research for the dry stone walls – part of the local vernacular of course.  English estate landscapes employed a series of similar walls – they were called a Ha Ha and used to keep the livestock from getting too close to the “house.” 
(Can you guess why they were called Ha Ha?  You have to love that English sense of “humor.” ^:^)

Here Dan worked in a limited style, using sweeps of perennials, and was mindful of the garden’s maintenance for this 2-acre site (there are one to two gardeners a week to do all the work.)

But what must be his favorite project – certainly it seemed his most dramatic—is the Millennium Forest, (
Curiously, or ironically, or logically, the project to maintain and, in some areas, reproduce the area’s pristine forest that is being encroached by farmland, is funded by a successful newspaper magnate… (trees=paper—I know you get it, but just in case…)

Dan’s description of how he got involved in the Millennium project sounded somewhat like a friendly fraternity hazing. 

About 10 years ago, Dan was contacted by Mr.Takano, the landscape architect for a prominent newspaper magnate.  
In the Japanese tradition, there were a series of meetings before any formal agreement was considered.  Mr. Takano was gauging how he and Dan and their client might work together – spiritually, philosophically and physically. 
Finally, lured to the Forest by Mr. Takano’s invitation, the two experienced the forest in a -35 degree Fahrenheit winter evening final “test” including hot springs and – what else – a shared beer.

It wasn’t long after that when Mr. Takano asked Dan to prepare a master plan to create a sustainable environment there – that would last for 1,000 years and at the same time, become an ecological park where people would be prompted to ask, “What does it mean?”

Acknowledging there is a national Japanese reverence for nature, Dan suggests it can more often than not, be one step removed.  Not unlike most of the rest of the world’s increasingly urbanized populace, most Japanese lived in an environment with little connection to nature. 

So while Dan and Mr. Tanaka and the team may have changed the topography, created mystical pools and paths and siting areas for visitors. 

Dan also created the land forms that seem to touch the sky. 
One of his favorite recollections about dealing with his on-site Japanese team from his remote English location – was after the first snowfall, was getting a call from saying his natural, land form mounds were said to look like  “a series of meringues.”
Come on, does it get any frothier than that?   Sigh…

Dan employed 19 different planting combinations – each has 5 or 6 different plants sizes and blooming times (depending on vigor or “like DNA”
He used 35,000 perennials (hakone to hosta to cimifuga)
He used natural trees and a palette of perennials – many North American -- and mixed them with Japanese natives to combine native and exotic has general, global values so that visitors will note than their own natives.

Moving on to the Q&A, Lyndon Miller asked, “How does the Japan project sustain itself?”  Dan said, “ Good question.” Then elaborated.  “Education – they’ll develop programs and classes to attract a paying audience in addition to generating visitors.” 
The benefactor/magnate will continue to fun the project for 10 years.

Dan signed books for the attendees.  

Here I am with Dan:

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Glamorous and Exuberant Book on Gardens and Floral Design

“Garden Bouquets and Beyond”
Creating Wreaths, Garlands, And More In Every Garden Season


Garden Bouquets and Beyond: Creating Wreaths, Garlands, and More in Every Garden Season

Suzy Bales’ latest book is exhibit A in the case to be made why coffee table books need to be renamed. 

True, the book’s gorgeous, jaw-dropping color images hypnotically capture your imagination and render you motionless. 
You are under its charmed spell. 
So there you sit – presumably with that cup of coffee at your “coffee table” -- not wanting to turn the page, but like a good dream, you are led to the next unexpected adventure.

On the other hand, “Garden Bouquets and Beyond” is a How -To book – a veritable pocket book of seasonal design tips and ideas and care instructions you can use every day. 
You’ll look at your garden in a whole new way, too. 

Suzy introduces you to the idea to view the garden as a treasure-trove of unlimited cutting garden gathering opportunities. 

“Why stop at the blooms when there is foliage?” She posits.  Or bird baths to fill with spring blossoms or a “posy topping a gift-wrapped package.” (Source:

The creations are all the more exciting because Suzy helps us, the reader, discover plants and blooms commonly found in most gardens, including honeysuckle, blueberry, witch hazel, sage, allium, yarrow, hosta (as a table cloth ^:^), ivy, nandina, seedpods, ornamental grasses. swamp maple, dogwood, viburnum, and azalea blossoms.  Betcha’ never thought of these candidates for glamorous floral arrangements!
What Suzy designs with floral foam confirms her reign as Eden’s sorceress. 
Her creativity sparkles with suggestions that range from wet and dry wreaths to candelabra confections and joyful runners and Anais Nin headbands, eye candy garlands, and mock topiaries – she literally “paints with nature’s palette” to borrow a heading from the book.

There are tips on color, texture, proportion, balance. 
Then she throws it all to the wind and claims “there are no rules.” And in the same breath, admonishes us to have fun! 

Then there are the words – the text!  This is a book, after all J

Who couldn’t love chapter titles such as “Naked Ladies,”  “Belting Out The Blues,” “Dahlia Daze” “Berry Madness” and “Get the Joint A-Jumpin?”
So much of the book reads like a best girlfriend’s diary she lets you peek at. 
She refers to the morning glory’s flowers as a “perpetual wink.”  
Amassing flowers for a vase she says is akin to a “group hug.”  

These cute as a button, down-home sparklers reflect the conversational style and wit Suzy “gifts” to the reader.
You just know she’s a dame you want to share a cocktail with.  Over an irresistible and eye-catching arrangement that is…

But for all the charm, the book offers a very serious, well-researched series of conditioning flower guidelines, an entire section devoted to how long a cut flower’s Vase Life is, seasonal favorites “at a glance,” and tips on water quality and extending blooms.  There is a source page too. (,,

And it seems every other page has an easy to understand highlight box explaining things we were too self conscious about asking, including “bugs,” debunking myths or old wives tales. 

Buy this exuberant book for its fun and charm. 
Refer to it and use it for its garden and floral design inspiration and expertise. 

I love the book jacket blurbs from some of my favorite garden journalists.  They say it best.  Here’s what Valerie Easton wrote:  “We’ve learned that fresh, local organic food is best, so why are we still buying hothouse flowers, shipped halfway around the world for our home?” (Why indeed?)  … “Only Suzy could transform pachysandra into a showpiece of a wreath?”
Mario Bosquez, host of “Living Today” on Martha Stewart Living Radio, says “Suzy Bales always strikes the right note in making gardening and arranging accessible and educational, and, most of all, the ultimate in all things fabulous and floral.”

And be sure to check out how to dress up the ice “bucket” for a magnum of champagne. How glamorous!

The Horticultural Society of New York ( hosted author Suzy Bales’ launch of  “Garden Bouquets and Beyond” as part of their Important Books and Author’s Series.  Suzy’s has authored 14 books.

The evening was a fundraiser held at the swanky Sherry-Netherland Hotel in New York City.
Friends and supporters mingled.

Cocktails and hors d’ouevres passed while Suzy autographed her book. 

Me and Suzy:

The lecture was the main event, with an introduction by the Hort Society’s executive director, Sara Hobel, who also noted that the evening’s fundraising would go to help support HSNY’s varied programs including the Rikers Island program.

With great humor and self-effacing wit, Suzy led us through the research, writing, and production of her delightful new book, accompanied by seductive images from the book.  The oohs and ahhs from the guests confirmed the designs' drama and appeal. 

The lecture was followed by a robust Q&A.

Check out author Suzy Bales’ web site for a calendar listing of her upcoming national lecture and book signing schedule, including the New York Botanical Garden (, April 15th, Shepard Pratt Conference Center in Baltimore, The Hampton Garden Club, and The Cosmopolitan Club, NYC, November 15th.  (we love your namesake cocktail, the Cosmo!)


Thursday, April 1, 2010

Spring Fever

Spring Fever

Now it starts to get really good. 

It wasn’t that long ago that the spring catalogs arrived -- not Saks, silly -- rather the seed and garden catalogs with their seductive photo spreads and promises of color and style.

Up next in the spring fashion show were the newly arrived spring seed packets.  So classic and artistic looking:

 Got the soil test kit from Rutgers at the Garden State Flower Show.

First we sowed the spring peas – right after St. Patrick’s Day, followed by the arugula seeds.

Indoors: started the Beefsteak & Heirloom tomatoes, along with the Thai peppers and basil and chile peppers, including Thai and Pequin.

Back outside, the shallots – Picasso Dutch and Yellow Moon Dutch bulbs were planted. 
For the second year, we ordered the shallots and potatoes from The Maine Potato Lady in Guilford ME.  (

The potatoes arrived via UPS and are “backstage” in the garage, acclimating, getting ready for their red carpet moment.

We ordered the superstars Kennebec (sold out), Chieftain and Cortland. 

In the meantime, tools were sharpened and prepped.

Ornamental grasses were cut.

The Back Forty Edible Garden was prepped

Laid in manure, peat and lots and lots of homemade Compost! We composted all winter. No problem.

And today is pure, unadulterated joy!  The warm sunshine and clear sky is “The promise of spring. “

Off to the nurseries to see those happy blooms nodding, “pick me, pick me.”
Those little “show offs” will dazzle the spring container compositions I’ll design today.