Saturday, May 31, 2008

It's a sickness

I've become overly obsessed with gardening this year, even more so than usual. I won't tell you how much I've spent on plants and flowers for landscaping the yard, but suffice it to say that some people would spend less on a vacation than I've spent on gardening this year.

At any rate, today I planted 26 plants, in areas that weren't easy planting. I'm exhausted. But I am hoping it will be pay off nicely in a couple of months.

I am starting to see the results of the early spring plantings, but not all of them have been successful. My variegated polemonium all seem to be dying off, for no particular reason. The soil is kept moist, they are shaded most of the day, and they are fertilized regularly. Everything else seems to be doing well health-wise, but these aren't.

The vinca are growing at an incredibly slow pace. They have hardly grown at all since planting, but at least they're not dead.

I also have some purple dragon lamium ground cover that is growing very slowly, as are the White Christmas hosta. I am wondering if all this slow growth isn't the result of cold weather we've had this spring. Only last week did it warm up into the 70s. And it went pretty much from 50s to 70s. We didn't really have a spring.

I can't wait for June, when the strawberries will be in season. Jess will drive me out to the east end of the Island, where I'll pick about 16-20 quarts of strawberries and then we'll drive back home, where I will immediately set to work washing, slicing, and macerating the berries before making them into preserves and sealing them in jars. Some of the berries will be simply rinsed, dried, and frozen whole for use in ice cream and sauces during the rest of the year. Last year, I put up 12 quarts and just exhausted my supply a week ago...but I was very conservative with what I had canned, using as minimal an amount as possible. I gave several pints and half-pints of preserves to friends who visited, but not as many as I'd have liked to. So, this year, I think 16 quarts will be the minimum.

I am glad that I now only have one thing left to plant, some Japanese hakone forest grass. It's to be planted in the summer, so I have a bit of a break...for now.

It's really an obsession, all this. And I'm up at 10 to midnight on a Saturday, blogging about it. I've lost it.

Bloom time!

Well, things are starting to take shape in the Jess and Bokey Gardens! Click on the photos to get an even nicer view.

The weigela is blooming. It's a little like a cross between a forsythia and an azalea; it grows like a forsythia, with long, gangly arms, but with flowers reminscent in color (but not in shape) of azalea. The foliage is green tinged with red. It's an interesting bush, that's for sure.

The wood hyacinths are beautiful, and they are in a particularly interesting location among the ivy...this ribbon of plants happens to be right along a line where the sunlight falls every morning. Jess' mom and dad had planted these. They have been here a long time. Since I shot this, they have gone out of bloom, but I wanted to show them to you anyway.

My HE Young clematis is blooming. It is just the most beautiful shade of pale purple, and if you've read my blog for long, you know I love purple. This is its second year, so it will be a year or two before it really takes off. I have five other clematis that are first-year plants, so it will be awhile before they bloom, and they won't
bloom much.

Here's a close-up of the flower.

The astilbes are blooming, too. I love astilbes, they have the most interesting-looking bloom heads on them. These are the white ones; I am waiting quite impatiently for the pink ones to start blooming.

Here's another shot of the astilbe.

Still haven't seen enough? Neither have I. Here's my brilliant pinkish-purple rhododendron in full bloom. By the way, this is not the PJM or Roseum Elegans type that everyone else seems to have. It's darker than those (even though it's hard to tell from this picture). People who see it are amazed at how purple it is. The flowers are starting to die off now, but... Hachmann's Charmant rhododendron is finally blooming! I was beginning to think it was never going to! Isn't it just stunning?

Close-up of the flower cluster.

My iris are such a deep color of purple that they almost look black. The fragrance is wonderful, too. I dug a lot of these at the beginning of the season because they just took over the area where I planted them, and I wanted to plant some other things there.

I love pansies (no, the flowers!) and of course, have to have purple. Here are some of the ones I bought earlier this year. These are still in the flats, I didn't have room for them...but I couldn't bear to throw out the ones that I couldn't yet plant.

Here are some cineraria that I planted in a pot by the front stoop. I love these little blue-purple flowers. They won't be around much longer though...they only last about 10 weeks, and that's about how long I've had them.

I don't plant chives because they yield beautiful pinkish-purple flower heads...I plant them because they yield wonderful, delicate onion flavor to food dishes. But the flowers are a nice extra.

On a sad note, our more than 50 year-old silver maple has not been well for the last couple of seasons, and this will be its last. It has stood guard over the house for decades, but this year, its bark has become a sickly shade of grey and it has failed to leaf out like it is supposed to. When the seed pods formed on the branches this year, they didn't stay on the tree until they had dessicated, falling to the ground in rotation like tiny helicopter blades; instead they fell off the branches green, in huge clumps. And instead of leafing robustly as they usually do, the branches barely developed leaves at all. And the development of those leaves was so far behind that of the other maples that it was quite obvious that it was dying. Last year it had a very bad problem with fungus that the landscaper was concerned about. The mushroom-like fungus was growing all over the trunk and even when removed, redeveloped quickly. The carpenter ants attacked it early in the last season. There are many hollow spots in the trunks where the squirrels hang out, which give opportunities to carpenter ants and other pests to destroy the tree from the inside out. And recently, during a windstorm, a very large branch broke off, landing in the front yard near the dogwood. It has many large branches that hang over the house, and some of those have no leaves this year, meaning they are already dead. So we have called the town to request its removal. It was a very tough decision to make.

Next week, I'm hoping my pink mountain laurel will finally bloom. I can't wait to show you that one.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Patrick's coming!

Our friend Patrick is coming out from the city today and so we'll be going out east to do a wine-tasting tour at some of our fabulous east-end vineyards (like Pindar as well as making a stop at Flo's Luncheonette in Blue Point.

Patrick and I share a love of all things purple, and so I am excited for him to see the yard in all its purpleness!

More later.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

You bettah work!

This week was a busy one, yard-wise. Now that the weather has decided to warm up (about damn time!) I needed to get my tomato seedlings into their outdoor homes. Based on how many I had to put out, and the fact that a bulb order I had placed earlier arrived this past Tuesday, I knew I would have too much to do come Saturday. And I was not about to work on Monday; that's my day off and I will relax and enjoy it! So I've been getting up early every morning this week and planting at least one or two tomato plants (I had 10 to plant) as well as some rosemary and basil seedlings. I had grown three varieties of tomatoes from seed: Sweet 100 (which is my favorite cherry tomato ever); Mortgage Lifter (heirloom - haven't ever tried it, have heard it was good) and Brandy Boy (a hybrid, and one of the best tomato varieties I have ever tasted - I got three good tomatoes off my Brandy Boy vines last year before a blight consumed my neighbor's vines and then spread to mine).

Fast forward to today; the dogs woke me early, and once I'm up, I'm up, so I got dressed and went to the nursery to look for a particular variety of tomato plant I wanted to try this year but forgot to order when I was ordering my other varieties. I didn't find it there, but I did find another heirloom variety I had wanted to try this year (Brandywine) so I went home and made breakfast. After breakfast, we jumped into the car and drove over to the park, where a group of Marines was flying big helicopters into the park and putting on a show. We walked around there a bit, admired a few hunky boys, walked to the park's 9/11 memorial and then on to the war memorial.

After that, we got in the car and headed off for a another nursery in search of the elusive heirloom tomato I was after (Cherokee Purple). After driving halfway across the county to two different nurseries, I found the plant and brought it home. So this afternoon, I was busy planting the two tomato plants I had purchased today and two-thirds of the bulbs that I received by mail order. I also finished fertilizing and covering my EarthBox containers, which hold six of the ten tomato plants and the basil, rosemary, and chives.

So I am pooped.

Truth be told, I really wanted to try a Bloody Butcher tomato plant but wasn't sure how good they were until I read the tomato forum at GardenWeb and found out that a lot of people really like it. Oh, well. Next year. By the way, if you're a garden nut like me, you really should visit can learn a lot from the forums there. I certainly have. They also have a great group of home forums. Check it out!

In other news, we got a new gas grill this week and I am very excited about it. What you must understand is that, for my entire life, I have been a charcoal grill guy. I turned my nose up at the prospect of owning a gas grill, which to me, wasn't a real grill at all. But I have been impressed with the improvements that have been made to these grills over the years and I do love the fact that you can be ready to cook in ten minutes, have a consistently searing hot fire every time, be able to monitor the heat so that you know exactly when it's right to add the food, not be at the mercy of the wind (hard to charcoal grill when there isn't any) and the weather (the taste of a charcoal grill becomes too strong when it's cool outside), and produce consistent results every time you grill. And now that I have used it, I definitely think it's far better suited for vegetable grilling than charcoal, since the vegetables really tend to take on the charcoal taste. We got a Blue Ember from Home Depot after doing a lot of research, and I think we really got the best grill value for the money. I'll have to post pictures later.

In other yard news, several things have come into bloom and I have been busy taking pictures, but it will take me awhile to organize them and write the post, so be patient. Ha. With my blog, you must always be patient. As you know from my writings here, I love purples and pinks, and so there is a lot of purple and pink in the yard. I will give you a sampling of all that in the pictures I post.

I do hope all my plants make it this year. I tried putting out two of my tomato seedlings about 4 weeks ago, but it was still too cold, and neither made it beyond the third day. I planted the tomatoes not only in containers but also in the ground in areas around the house (because we have so much shade, there are few opportune spots for tomatoes) and I am curious to see how they do in the different locations. I have always been impressed with the size of the plants and the yields from my EarthBoxes, but last year, my neighbor's plants in the ground seemed to do just as well as my EarthBox plants, so I thought I'd do some very unscientific research this year and see how they do. I love home-grown tomatoes anyway, and with 10 plants, I am sure to have more than enough tomatoes this year. I'm also trying a new fertilizer that my mom has used called Spray-n-Grow because I have been very impressed with what it has done for my houseplants. I'll let you know how it does. That will be another test. There are two tomato plants in each of the four boxes. I plan to spray one of the plants in each box with Spray-n-Grow and leave the other as it is and see how they differ.

"Why only two plants in each box?" you ask. Well, they grow so big and develop such massive root systems in the EarthBox that two is all a box can handle. Last year, my plants grew to 7 feet tall and three feet wide. They were like small trees. I was crushed when the blight from my neighbor's vines wiped mine out. It seemed to come out of nowhere. His plants were so lush and beautiful...and big. And the blight got them before he had a chance to harvest more than a handful. The thing that worries me this year is that he has put tomatoes out again - in the same spot as the last two years - and tomatoes demand that you not plant them in the same spot every year. With my containers, I switch out which boxes I plant tomatoes in each year so that this doesn't happen. Since I only had one box with tomatoes in it last year, and I have five boxes, I was able to plant four of the boxes this year. Next year, I'll be back to one box.

Okay, enough garden talk. I hope everyone enjoys the long weekend!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

First taste of summer

Even though summer is about a month off yet, we decided it was time for some summertime fun last night. We grilled steaks and burgers on the little Weber charcoal kettle for the last time before our new Blue Ember gas grill arrives (Tuesday). We had just enough charcoal to do it, and in fact, afterwards we decided that it would have been better if we had had just a little more...but hey, we were trying to finish off all the charcoal and we were successful. After dinner, I dug out our Cuisinart 1 quart ice cream maker which we had not used in many moons (literally, it's been more than a year) and dusted it off to make two batches of fresh strawberry ice cream. Now before you go scratching your head about why two overweight guys should eat ice cream, let me tell you that it was sugarless, low-carb ice cream. And before you turn up your nose at sugarless ice cream, you would have to have tasted my sugarless ice cream, because I guarantee you, you would have great difficulty in discerning that it is sugarless...even if you tell me that you hate artificial sweeteners.

The burgers were good, the steaks were better, and the ice cream was fabulous.

Nothing tastes like homemade ice cream. I grew up having it about once a month or more during the summer, because my mom's family was all about homemade ice cream. At that time, we had a hand-crank White Mountain freezer. I loved the ice cream, but I hated the process of making it. First, you mixed up your ingredients and put them into the ice cream can. Then you seated the wooden paddle into the can and put the can into the wooden bucket that held the can and the ice mix. The heavy metal lid was then put on the can. That wasn't always easy because the lid had a center hexagonal notch that had to be seated just perfectly in order for the crank to work.

The next step was the most important: getting the ice mix just right. You'd put a 3-inch layer of ice into the bucket, then a 1/2-inch layer of rock salt, and repeat this process until the ice was about 1 1/2 inches from the top of the can. You could either start cranking then or, as my uncle liked to do because he said it took less time to freeze, pour a small amount of cold water over the top of the ice mix and then start cranking.

One person was the designated cranker for the first 10-12 minutes, and another for the second 10-12 minutes, because that was about as long as your arm could stand to crank it, and you had to maintain a steady speed that was neither too fast nor too slow. Besides the designated cranker, there was a designated sitter. The sitter would use an old bedspread, folded over itself numerous times, and put it atop the crank apparatus and then sit on the crank apparatus so that it stayed still. As a kid, I thought that having a sitter was necessary for all freezers and thought it was pretty dopey engineering until I discovered as a teenager that it was actually our freezer that was the problem: the side latch that held the crank apparatus in place was broken on our freezer, so that's why someone had to sit on the apparatus. But I found this out only after asking my aunt why no one had to sit on her freezer. Sitting on the freezer wasn't only uncomfortable because you were sitting on unforgiving metal, it was also freezing cold. By the time 25 minutes was up, there'd be no feeling in your ass for a week. It was hard to tell whether this phenomenon was caused by the metal or the ice.

The ice cream freezer was a messy affair: as the ice melted from the reaction with the salt, the water level in the bucket would rise high enough that it would need to be released so that it didn't flood the bucket and make its way into the ice cream can. So there was a hole drilled into the side of the bucket which allowed runoff. Even so, you had to be careful that you didn't let any of the resulting brine get up around the lid, or you'd wind up with salty ice cream. You couldn't make your ice cream in the back yard, though, or else the brine would run into the grass and kill it. So you had to put the freezer into a large tub to catch the brine, or you'd have to freeze it in your driveway (in front of all your neighbors) so that the brine would run off into the street, where it would then confuse any number of free-range neighborhood pets that would mistake it for potable water, sending cats, dogs and squirrels running from the curb with their paws about their necks, gasping "water!"

My mom's family would get together on weekends and everyone would bring a 1-1.5 gallon ice-cream freezer filled with their particular favorite. My mother would routinely make chocolate or vanilla when I was a kid, and occasionally lemon or strawberry; but as I got older, she got more adventurous. One of the first non-standard flavors I remember her making was a banana ice cream that was so heavy and banana-y that it was sinful to eat; you couldn't eat more than about a half bowl of it. She liked that though, because it made it go farther. Then she really got into making candy bar and cookie ice creams like Butterfinger® ice cream, Milky Way® ice cream, and Oreo® (or in our case, Hydrox®, because Oreos were too expensive).

When the process was finished, you'd carefully pull the can from the freezer tub, open it up and remove the paddle to a platter, where multiple youngsters would lick the paddle like dogs, getting the rapidly-melting sugary, creamy goo all over their faces and clothes. I remember my cousin, who liked to drink the melted ice cream from the paddle platter, lifting the platter one time and over-compensating, at which point liquid ice cream spilled from the platter all over face, down her neck and into the front of her clothes. She ran away screaming and crying because she didn't want to be seen with the mess all over her. My uncle was minimizing it, saying, "what's a little spilled milk?" and another cousin, whom I loved because he was so mischievous, cracked that, "if her boobs were bigger, she could have avoided it running clear to her knees."

My mom is still widely known for her ice cream, and now one of her favorites to make is Cherry Pie, which is also outrageous...not for those who are on a has cherries, but it also has chunks of graham cracker crust that are added in during the last 5-10 minutes of the cycle.

The hand-crank freezer was retired when I was about 18 (that freezer was about 25 years old at the time) and my parents bought an electric-motor White Mountain freezer that my mom still uses today. It's more convenient than the manual crank version, but it's a lot noisier. You can't hold a conversation anywhere in her apartment while it's running unless you use a megaphone. Even my Cuisinart is noisy, but it's nothing compared to the White Mountain.

Sugarless Strawberry Ice Cream
Makes 2 qts

1 egg, separated
3/4 c. Equal Measure (NOT the paper packets!)
3/4 c. Splenda for Baking (NOT the paper packets!)
1 qt. fresh strawberries
1 tsp vanilla
1 pint heavy cream
1 pint whole milk

Separate eggs and beat white until it just holds peaks; gradually add the sweeteners while beating, continuing to beat for 1 minute. Beat in the egg yolk. Set aside briefly.

Place the strawberries and a little of the cream in blender and blend for 3 seconds. There will still be big chunks of berry; that's okay. Add to egg mixture along with remaining cream, milk, and vanilla. Stir well.

Place 1 quart of the mixture into Cuisinart freezer bowl and freeze for 25 minutes; transfer to bowls; pour remaining quart of mixture into freezer and freeze for 25 minutes.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Run that gauntlet!

There's a narrow strip of sidewalk about 12 feet long that runs beside the west side of our house, which sits between two long flowerbeds. It's the only way from the back yard to the front yard. You go this way to do things like move the recyclables and yard waste to the curb, as well as just moving between back yard and front yard in general.

Enter our problem: two really stupid cats. You see, the oldest cat (who is at least 13 years old, probably older) is a little light in the head. Okay, a lot light in the head. In all her years, she's never learned to do her privy duties the way a cat should. Instead of digging out a spot for pooping, she gives the area one (or if she's really feeling energetic, two) light swipes of the paw (as if she's worried about getting the paw dirty or something) and proceeds to do the business. Instead of covering it when finished, she may decide to make a couple of lame paw swipes, or she may not. After all, she might get her paw dirty, and God forbid that should happen.

The guilty pair. Oh, you may think they may look pretty, but pretty is truly skin deep in this case.

She taught this latrine laziness to her offspring, our other cat, who is now about 6.

Between the two of them, they manage to hit a lot of the flower beds I work in, leaving me with dirty little surprises. Sometimes I see them, occasionally I don't. Thankfully, I work in gloves most of the time, but still - it's nasty when you come across one. Let's just say that these cats' bowels are about as good as their bathroom habits and leave it at that.

At any rate, I have tried many things to keep them out of certain areas. I've used pepper (which is only good until the next time the automatic sprinklers run), I've tried repellents (again, the sprinklers wash it off), and when I can catch them in the act (almost never), I have shooed them out of those beds, but to no avail.

They have managed to make a completely disgusting mess of the two flower beds on either side of that sidewalk I wrote of earlier. As a result, the smell is truly overwhelming as you make your run (and yes, you must run) along the side of the house to the front yard. On a hot summer's day, it's actually horrible.

I've decided to call this area Catshit Gauntlet. During the summer, I think I'll sell tickets to neighbors and let them attempt to make the run without throwing up. Whaddya think?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

And these are the people who run the country...scary

Today it was reported that Senator John Sununu recently made a statement that Iowa corn should be being diverted from ethanol to food. Hmmm...that's a very interesting proposal, John, but corn used for fuel production isn't the kind you'd eat. I'm not even an agro-scientist and I know that.

Sounds like pandering platitudes to me, all under the guise of being eco-friendly. Oh yes, because the Republicans are so well-known for their eco-friendliness. Not that it's not possible, it is...but this is really lame. This is the kind of horse hockey that politicians are so good at. Promoting "brilliant ideas" and wasting taxpayer money. It's enough to make you sick. How about trading those corn subsidies for exploring and producing clean, renewable energy, like solar, hydrofuels or other such sources so that we stop killing our planet?