Monday, July 30, 2007

Legalize absinthe!

The blurriness of this image is because I shot it with my camera phone, NOT because I was under the influence of Absinthe. That came later.

Michael and I visited our friend Jim in Santa Fe and topped off the evening with a glass of Absinthe, the famed green intoxicant so beloved by 19th century French artists. I've wanted to try it ever since I wrote a paper on its primary herbal component (Artemesia absinthium aka wormwood) in 2002, but it's illegal to sell in the U.S. (for no good reason, trust me).

We sat in Jim's backyard, under the apricot tree hung with candle lanterns, eating, talking, drinking, and breathing in that wonderful desert air. It'll be six months before we're there again, and Absinthe or not, I'm looking forward to the trip.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Thanks for the hospitality.

Last day in Santa Fe. Poor me. Actually I feel so rested and relaxed I don't even mind the thought of going back to work.

This morning I wandered through my host's garden. She's an amazingly generous woman with a wicked sense of humor. Who else would put up a bird house in the form of a voracious cat?! Her gardens are tremendous: vegetables, fruit trees, sculpture, and of course, some plain, old-fashioned, beautiful flowers. I spend hours there in various uncomfortable positions (with my tripod, on the ground, on a ladder), trying to get the perfect angle on a sunflower or hollyhock.

In return for her generosity, I bring her jams and jellies, and this year, my last bottle of raspberry cordial, which I wouldn't waste on just anyone. I wish I could do more, but I've decided to think of this hospitality as a gift. I may not be able to pay Elspeth back directly, but I hope that someday I can be this generous to someone else.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

You gotta love geography. Or is it topography?

mesas and lizards and stink bugs, oh my!

Yesterday morning we drove out to Tent Rocks, passing through the Cochiti Indian Reservation. It’s an amazing place, with cone-shaped tuff rock formations and narrow, curving slot canyons carved out of the earth by rivers long since diverted or dried up. Giant boulders balance on top of rock pillars and look like sculpture against the insanely blue New Mexico sky.

The canyons are sinuous, at times so narrow I had to take off my backpack and tripod to fit through. During the rainy season, flash floods can race through the canyons, pushing piles of debris: branches, rocks, and occasionally people.

The contrast between the shadowy canyons and the bright sun atop the mesas makes this a challenging place to photograph, but I played around with the auto exposure bracket feature on my camera and I think I learned something.

Only two of us made it up to the very top: me, and the class assistant who’s young enough to be my son. And yes, I know it’s bragging, but I got there first.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tyrone rules!

Yesterday morning we went to Shidoni, a sculpture garden and metal foundry in Tesuque, NM. We roamed the ground for 2 hours, shooting, experimenting, basically playing. I don’t play enough in real life and it felt so good. I wanted to skip and sing. I didn’t skip. I definitely sang. And took a few photos to boot.

In the evening we went into the Plaza to photograph people. This is NOT my usual thing; I never thought I had an interest in shooting people. (You know me, all plants all the time.) It was absolutely exhilerating and a wonderful excuse to go up to total strangers and start a conversation. Thrilling in a way that surprised me greatly. My favorite face of the day was Tyrone, a boy scout from Atlantic City, NJ, about to embark on a 65 mile, 10 day hike through the desert wilderness. Have a great trip, Tyrone, and thanks for letting me take your photo!

Monday, July 23, 2007

There's no place like Santa Fe.

Can you tell I’m not in Kansas anymore? Yesterday I flew to Santa Fe to take a class at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. I love Santa Fe and I love photography so basically it’s a dream vacation. And it gives me an entire, luxurious week to get to know my new digital camera.

This morning our first assignment took us to Jackalope, a very cool import emporium out on Cerillos Rd. I’ve always loved this store; it’s a wonderful collection of glass, pottery, wood, textiles, beads, things you want to touch and smell and taste. Today we wandered indoors and out, shooting whatever captured our imaginations, and I found this Agave parryii: 16” across, succulent blue-gray foliage, and wildly toothed. You want to touch it but you know you shouldn’t. It’s a tempting, dangerous plant.

I’ve been growing this same species back east for almost two years and my scrawny specimen still doesn’t fill a two inch pot. I hate feeling pathetic and sorry for myself, so I’m putting this plant up for adoption as soon as I get back home. There are times when you just have to let go, and having seen this plant in all its xeriphytic glory here in the desert Southwest I am forced to admit that this is one of those times. Anyone out there want a baby Agave parryii?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

bounteous blackberries

My definition of friendship has always been strict and I won't apologize for that. An aquaintence might say, "Yeah, I found some blackberries over by Shohola Lake." A true friend would draw you a map, and beg you not to miss out on the greatest concentration of the biggest berries he'd ever seen. That true friend is Mark Hardy.

Michael and I donned long pants, real shoes, and long-sleeved shirts and headed out in search of blackberries yesterday morning. In 15 minutes we'd picked 6 cups. Why all the body armor? Well, blackberries don't make it easy for you. Aside from the tick potential in that grassy field, you need protection from the weapons grade thorns of the blackberry bush. Old dead wood grabs at your pants, literally tearing holes into anything less rugged than denim. Young, bearing branches sink their curved thorns into your arms and hands and simply don't let go when you try to disentangle. Blackberry thorns make rose thorns look like nothing.

Still, we'll be going back for more, because those were the biggest, fattest, juiciest berries we'd ever seen, and the bushes will be bearing for weeks to come. What a find! What a stash! What a dilemma!

What will I do with all the bounty? Blackberry jam would be delicious, but I vowed not to make so many jams and jellies this year. Perhaps a blackberry/mulberry jam blend? Blackberry pie with homemade vanilla ice cream? Cobbler? Cordial? Or simply mashed and poured over a piece of pound cake (the perfect vessel for berries of any kind). It's not a bad problem to have, and I'm more than willing to take suggestions. Whatever I end up making, I'm saving some for Mark, with many thanks!

Thursday, July 19, 2007


This morning I planted a weeping cherry on a client's terrace. I used to scorn the weeping cherry. They're grafted trees (a weeping cherry scion onto an upright cherry rootstock) and there's something about grafted trees that bugs me. It's a tough love thing: if the tree can't survive on its own roots, then damn it! it doesn't deserve to survive at all. But after my trip to Japan this spring I have new appreciation for all things cherry: weeping cherries, wild cherries, double cherry blossoms, single cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms viewed at night (light-o up-u), cherry blossoms viewed in a day long celebration of food and drink, drive by cherry blossom viewing, temple cherry blossom viewing, the list goes on. It's called Hanami. (Hana means flower and mi means to look at.) But I must warn you: Hanami is contagious.

Everybody does it. Businessmen spread a blue plastic tarp under a single cherry tree in the middle of downtown Tokyo. (A can of beer, a pack of cigarettes...hanami!) Families spend the day in the park, eating, listening to music, playing with the dog. Even cemetaries are filled with people picnicing under the cherry blossoms. Rowdy, drunken college students pitch tents on temple grounds. Proper Japanese ladies sit cross-legged on tables around hibachis. It's a national movement, with everyone rooting for the same team.

This year, as I plant my gardens, I find myself considering cherry trees much more often than in years past. And why not? They're noble trees: providing flower and fruit, lovely bark, interesting structure. They're generally more disease resistant than apples and crab apples, and by planting different species of cherry, you can extend the bloom season over weeks if not months. The truth is, it may be a while before I get back to Japan and some echt Hanami, and I need an insurance policy. So I'm planting cherries wherever I can: on a New York City terrace, in a Pennsylvania back yard. And come next April, I'll break out the picnic blanket and the plum wine and celebrate the cherry blossom. By looking at the flower. Hanami.

Monday, July 16, 2007

night blooming cactus

I wait for this cactus to bloom all year and most of the time I miss it. The lead up is torturous: buds plump up over a few weeks, from nothing to 8 inches long. Then they balloon out, till you think they can't get any larger before bursting open. Sometimes I get back to the house and find the spent bloom, collapsed in upon itself, a mere remnant of its former glory. But every once in a while, I get the full monty.

These flowers open at night and only last 1 day. Since the plant lives in PA and I'm in NYC half the time...well you see how that works. This year I've missed 3 blooms since the end of May but yesterday my patience was rewarded. The flower is at least 8 inches across and fragrant. Pistils and stamens are intricate and powdery, and the petals (and sepals!) are a study in different shades of white.

I'd grow this plant even if it didn't flower, because the structure is so interesting: classic cactus barrels with serious spikes. I like a plant that demands your respect, then rewards you for good behavior.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

magnificant mushroom

In my spare time I like to sneak off into the woods and eat what I find there. Sometimes you hit the jackpot, like the other day when I got a hot tip on a cool fungus (we foragers know how to network). Michael and I drove off in search of White Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus Cincinnatus), a delicious edible mushroom with no poisonous look-alikes. It's rare in some parts of the country, but apparently not in PA. As you can see, this is a large bracket fungus (the man's watch is for scale), and there was another of equal size on the other side of the tree. (N.B. I only took half of this piece, leaving 3/4 of the fungus behind for fellow afficionados. Being greedy is bad juju.)

Chicken of the Woods grow mostly on oaks, and White Chicken of the Woods tend to grow at the base of trees. I don't think it really tastes like chicken, but it kind of looks like it when it's cut up in the pan and the texture is similar.

This was such a bountiful harvest I had to scramble to figure out what to do with it all. I froze some and I dried some. (It's an experiment to see which method better preserves the mushroom-y goodness.) We had some in an our eggs and some for supper stir fried with just-picked scallions, zucchini, and feta, over porcini and cheese stuffed torteloni. And then I used the rest to make what our grandmothers would have called "mushroom catsup." (I find lots of old recipes for odd catsups (walnut catsup, cherry catsup); I think it just means a sauce that includes vinegar and sugar and is used like a chutney with meat.) So now I've got 3 half pints of mushroom catsup waiting to grace a delicious steak or pork chop or pasta dish.

In any case I must be patient. Pickles, relishes, and chutneys taste better if they sit for about 4 weeks. Time allows the tastes of the vinegar, sugar, and spices to develop and blend. So I won't know till next month if this sauce is worthy of my last 4 cups of Chicken of the Woods. Which gives me plenty of time to think of ways to use my catsup...maybe I'll stuff some filo dough and make little mushroom pitas...or put a spoonful on a cracker topped with a few shreds of cheese...

Monday, July 9, 2007

at last!

You know that expression: the cobblers kids go barefoot?

People say to me, "Your garden must be great." "We want to see your garden." "I'm sure your garden is perfect." Think about it: the last thing I want to do after a long week of sweating on the rooftops of NYC is sweat in my own garden. I'm proud of my work and I'll show my clients' gardens to anyone. But I don't usually have the time or energy to make my own small plot look presentable.

This year I swore things would be different. I even cut back on my clients so I wouldn't feel too exhausted to garden on the weekends. And it's worked! My garden looks pretty damn good. There's still plenty of stuff to be done, but absolutely nothing to apologize for. And to top it all off: this year, for the first time EVER, Michael and I hooked up drip irrigation to our container tomatoes.

It was so simple, I can't believe we've never done it before. And it should really improve our harvest. Tomatoes can suffer from bottom blossom rot when their water is irregular, and since we'll be away at the end of the month we'd risk losing our crop if we didn't automate the irrigation (or get regular rain). We didn't have to buy a single piece of equipment. It was all leftover from various client jobs and the garden we had on 2nd Avenue, many moons ago. Each tomato pot got a 1 gallon dripper, and I even remembered how to programmed the water computer!

Such a little thing, and such a big sense of accomplishment. When the tomatoes start coming in, I'll stop patting myself on the back just long enough to eat.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Ellen & Michael: 1 - Japanese Beetles: 0

If you're squeamish you might want to skip this entry. On the other hand, you've already seen the picture, and that's the worst part. I think.

Japanese beetles are a fact of life in this part of the U.S. I don't have plagues of them, but even a few can do serious damage, so I'm not especially tolerant of these little buggers. On the other hand, I'm not willing to spray (chemicals, time) and we all know those pheromone traps don't work (they attract more than they trap and kill). So my smart husband Michael came up with this entirely non-toxic (except for the Japanese beetles) and perversely satisfying way of combatting the bug.

He squirted a 1/4 inch of dish washing liquid into a small bowl and left it on the deck railing, next to the roses, citrus, and basil. (These are the J.b's favorite plants in my garden.) When we spot a beetle, we hold the bowl under the bug, and knock it into the soap with a pencil. The soap coats the beetle, prevents it from flying away, and ultimates suffocates it. Yes, there's some desperate flailing of little beetle legs as the bugs lie on their backs in the liquid soap. But lest you feel sorry for them, take a look at a basil plant after a J.b. has had its way with it. Empathy disappears along with your dreams of homemade pesto.

We leave the bowl on the railing as a warning to other J.b.s that fly by in search of a meal. Sort of like heads on spikes on the castle parapet. I'm not convinced Japanese beetles actually have a communication network, but after three days we're catching many fewer beetles and I may actually get to make pesto next weekend. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


Elderflower champagne may not be real champagne, but to me it tastes like summer. It's lemony, sweet, refreshing, and mildly alcoholic...what's not to like? Every year I look forward to making and drinking it, but this year I was almost thwarted. Hard for a seasoned forager/cook like me to admit, but if I share my mistakes here, maybe I can save someone else the heart break of finding their elderflower brew moldy instead of frothy and sweet.

I'm pretty sure I figured out what went wrong. We've had a lot of rain here in NE PA and rain washes away the flower pollen. Elderflower pollen contains the yeast responsible for fermentation, so when there's not much pollen, there's not much yeast. And when there's not much yeast, you get mold instead of fermentation.

I made the mistake of harvesting my flowers after several rainy days...hence my bad brew batch. Why didn't I photograph the mold? I guess I wanted to forget it ever happened. Above is a healthy batch of flowers combined with lemon slices, soaked in water, sugar, and vinegar. This is from a second batch, picked after several sunny days. I'm happy to say that this time fermentation was successful. I've just bottled 4 liters of elderflower champagne, which should be ready to drink in about a week.

For the full recipe (from my book: Down & Dirty: 43 Fun & Funky First Time Projects & Activities to Get You Gardening), go to Or, you could always buy the book!