Thinking Outside the Garden Plot


By Carole Corlew
A friend says I should think outside the garden plot. What? “You make the best pesto in the world.” Okay, I agree (ha ha). “You should take it to the farm market.”

She says she knows someone who quit her day job after getting involved in olive oil. Yes that’s right. Olive oil. She and her husband researched and researched it and know all about the many kinds and they order it and sell it at farm markets and the like. They don’t even produce the olive oil.

So my friend said I should make my pesto from the organic basil I grow, freeze it in little containers and take it down to the EPA’s little farm market held on Fridays, I think, just to start. And see how it goes. Because the word is someone brought a big cooler of frozen pesto there and sold out in two hours. Selling that pesto for $12 a container! Imagine!

My pesto is something I originally made from The Silver Palate Cookbook. Then over the years I adapted it. I don’t measure. I use nuts and parmesan and olive oil and salt and pepper. But I also use flat-leaf Italian parsley to cut the taste of the basil depending on how strong the basil tastes. I don’t always use pine nuts. I might use something else. And I don’t use olive oil and cheese in the quantities called for in that original recipe.

My pesto is good, I admit. And I like to use organic ingredients. And sea salt because I think it has a pungent taste and supposedly it has more nutrition.

I might just do it. Think outside the garden plot.
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And because I’m practicing my linking, I am linking to Miss Moon here.

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Published in: on July 9, 2011 at 1:50 am  Comments (1)  
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A Gardener Salute

At first, the strange thought crossed my mind that they were saying goodbye, the hummingbird hovering just over my shoulder, followed by one dragonfly, then another and another, then at least a dozen spiraling through the air as though by design.

I had been talking about hummingbirds and dragonflies to my friend Dana. I’d wanted to see them in my garden out front. I’d glimpsed a hummingbird dash by twice in seventeen years out back, in the secluded patio, but only for a second. I had never seen hummingbirds in the front or dragonflies in either place.

I moved recently, a few miles away, to a different house. But I’m still going back to garden some at the old place. We haven’t cleared out yet. I wasn’t even thinking of the hummingbirds and dragonflies when I sensed something just over my shoulder.

And there it was, a hummingbird so close I could almost touch it, just over my head, near my shoulder. It was not in the flowers, but hovering in mid-air so close to me. Then it was off, replaced by a dragonfly. Then another and a third and a fourth, then at least a dozen circled the space above me.

And at first the strange question popped into my head “are they saying goodbye?” Then the frankly magical thinking that maybe they were reeling through space that day in a unique salute. After all, years before I had looked over the plain green spaces there and seen a vision no one else had thought of and brought it to life.

I coaxed bright colors from the earth, odd lilies and different jeweled mixes popping from the neighbors’ stands of hostas, pansies and azaelas. Others had hydrangeas, I had the delicate Starburst variety.

In the summer, carpets of giant zinnias grew huge, flanked by exotic Angel’s Trumpets that few had seen or heard of, huge bell shaped flowers unfurling from long okra-like pods, flooding the night air with a citrusy vanilla perfume.

The spectacle brought new people to the courtyard. Neighbors who never stopped to talk began to look forward to the sight. And as I gardened, day after day, for months each year, breaking out bright colors in a city often known for its grays, I became part of the landscape, as gardeners often do. My movements were a meditation, I was happy there, at peace.

And as my time in that space came to a close, maybe something humans cannot detect went off in nature’s radar. Maybe the hummingbirds and the dragonflies sensed a shift in a magnetic field. Something as simple as the fact that I am not out in the garden at night anymore.

So maybe their strange, unprecedented dance was a flyover in my honor as I moved on, a few miles up the road. I’m going to think of it that way.

It definitely wasn’t goodbye. Because I see them now, everywhere, the dragonflies. They are just there, often when I look up, their silent wings swirling in the air just ahead and above me. Keeping vigil. Keeping company. Showing me the way.

Published in: on August 11, 2010 at 3:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Tip for Transplant Shock

I am making sure my garden is extra special this year because we are selling the house after 17 years. This is sad, but I’m feeling better. One thing that helps is getting in some gardening work at the new house in between unpacking boxes.

I’ve been deadheading and pulling out vines and removing buckets of clay from the front flowerbed in the new place so I can transplant a few things from the old one before it goes on the market. Just a few things. I want to leave the essence there. It is part of what makes that house so special.

A friend’s father, Chuck, reminded me of a gardening tip I had forgotten. We were putting in hostas in the back yard of the old place, which had been cleared of clutter and the small dogwood and holly trees trimmed. The roses had barely bloomed for years because of the large shade tree just outside the gate, so I took those to the new house.

So now the back is a serene, shaded meditation garden. The patio is lined with hostas surrounded by smooth stones flanked by bursts of pink flowers. Chuck, who is an artist, suggested this to contrast with the bold splashes of color from the giant zinnias and Angel’s Trumpets that line the walkway out front.

I was talking about watering the plants after putting them into the ground and Chuck said, “I dig the hole, then fill it with water.” Of course! The summer heat in northern Virginia has been sweltering, reminding me of Alabama. I had already lost a couple of zinnias I tried to transplant. Zinnias don’t like to be moved, anyway. I had forgotten this old gardener’s trick.

So now I’m back with the program. It’s so simple. Dig a hole, put in the tip of the hose, fill with water. Pop in the plant, let water trickle in as you fill with potting soil and make sure that is nice and damp.

Even in the hottest part of summer, this will lessen transplant shock.

As for me, I’m still working on that.

Stay tuned.

Published in: on August 5, 2010 at 4:58 pm  Comments (2)  
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My Secret

(Note: I am working on a borrowed computer and can’t post photos temporarily. I soon will edit this with zinnia photos)

My neighbor J. is disappointed. Her zinnias didn’t come up. Everything else she planted did fine. She had admired my explosion of color for so long, this was her summer. She wanted those masses of blooms in front of her house, too.

We conferred all spring. Get seeds early at Target, or Safeway, I told her. Look for the giants, and the zinnias that look like dahlias, all spiky. Buy brilliant colors. Don’t be tempted by the swirls and the pastels. Go for the big ones, as big as plates.

Don’t plant too early. Northern Virginia is tricky. After a cold winter, a false heat will show up and with it the temptation to plant summer flowers. Don’t even think about it. Because after you get them in the ground, the cold will come swooping back. Maybe not a frost, but cold, dark and killing.

J. kept asking, “Is it time?” “Not yet,” I would say. “Be patient.”
And she was patient. She is a seasoned gardener and understands how to wait, which has been part of her recovery process after her husband was taken away too young by a devastating disease that struck a couple of years ago.

I think that’s part of the reason she wanted those zinnias. My flowers are a small stand of color that draws walkers from blocks away, stopping them in their tracks. Dreamy stares take over faces as memories slide into their minds. They tell me they are seeing grandmothers, aunts and fathers working in the flower beds. Vases of zinnias cut by mother in the childhood home. Neighborhoods unseen in decades. Streets that exist only in photographs now.

I don’t know what went wrong with J.’s zinnias. Years ago I did bring in some new soil to top off the existing bed. But it was just a few bags. J. gets full sun, as I do.
There is only one explanation, but it’s not something I easily talk about out in the real world.

My zinnias reveal something you wouldn’t know by looking at me. That patch represents my artistic side, also, the gentle rebel. The flowers pop from a sedate courtyard of traditional red brick townhomes softened by sedate shrubs, hostas, day lillies and small trees. The gardening committee doesn’t even approve, exactly, but the zinnias are popular so the members turn their heads.

I admit it, I talk to them. I can’t bear to thin the shoots, so I work long and hard finding places for every plant in other patches I manage to find and cobble together nearby. The house next door is a rental so I go to the tenants every year, hat in hand, asking if I can garden in their spaces.

If you are a seed, or a shoot, and your gardener can’t bear to lose one of you, wouldn’t you grow strong and beautiful too?

That’s my secret, I think, it’s love.

So before I leave the townhouse for good, for the new house, I plan to help J. again. I’ll dig up some of my zinnias, there are masses of them. I’ll dig holes in her flower bed and soak those with water and pop in the zinnias and fill them with good potting soil. I’ll have her join me.

We’ll tell the zinnias why we are doing this, talk to them about why they will grow well in their new space.

This will be my gift to J. A gift of love. I just know the zinnias will grow for her.

Published in: on August 3, 2010 at 9:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Better Gardening Road

When I realized, finally, that I would never be an orchid grower, I shifted to plan B. I would grow flowers that looked like orchids.

After all, isn’t that what we do, or should do, when we run into life’s inevitable disappointments? We move on. We focus on other things. We lose that “great love” and find out later he/she wasn’t actually good for us after all.

Regardless, in the best of all worlds we find out that life is in the journey.

So, I found some bulbs that looked to me like orchids. And they shook up my garden in that lull time between the blooming of the lilies and the unusual-for-here Angel’s Trumpets and the masses of zinnias, some of which eventually reach my height.

I picked up some bulbs called Pink Tigridia, from Costa Rica, the flower pictured on top of this post. Actually, I planted them and promptly lost the label. I went on Facebook and a woman I grew up with, my new botanical guru, figured out the name for me from her reference books.

Doesn’t it look like an orchid?

I bought some other bulbs that looked like the white orchid I lost, but even wilder. This one is the Hymenocallis.

People are walking by the flower patch out front and stopping, looking at these odd blooms in wonder, asking me what they are. They aren’t orchids, certainly. And that’s fine.

I have my own path. And this one is strewn with wild, unusual colors and shapes taking up residence among the staid hostas and evergreens. Blooms that have never been in my prim neighborhood before in these shapes and configurations.

This was another reminder to be true to myself, both personally and in a botanical sense. It is the much easier road. And in the garden, the beautiful one.

Published in: on June 15, 2010 at 4:41 pm  Comments (4)  
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Gardening, and Life, Unforced

I failed, again. The orchids died during the winter. I just can’t grow them.

Maybe impatience, watching too carefully and an improper setting too close to heating vents doomed the orchids. But that’s okay. Because I’m through with the needless trying, in gardening and other aspects of life.

I’m no longer envious when I see others in the flow, doing something so easily. Well, maybe a little. But I don’t need to try to duplicate the ease of others now.

Because I have my own zone. My garden, for instance, is distinct, unique to me. The blooms fit my personality. Like the old-fashioned, predictable zinnia, which in my garden is anything but.

Aunt Re had her African violets, which were perfect, not a spot on them. In fact, you had to stare a moment to make sure they were real.

She was a sweet woman, a worrier. The violets must have liked being made over. She kept them in a room with a big sliding glass door covered by drapes she would pull open and closed throughout the day, carefully calibrating the light just so.

She never had the children she wanted, and lavishly loved her nieces and nephews, making us feel special. We all responded in kind. Most of us, to this day, when asked about our favorite relative, will answer, “Aunt Re.”

Then, there’s the baking. For years, I’ve made a little southern butter cookie called brown-eyed Susans. They have a chocolate splash on top with a sliver of almond. I’ve given out the recipe, but no one makes it the way I do. That and pecan bar squares, which a friend in Tennessee told me how to make and people often request it now.

Once, a woman I knew who was an excellent cook insisted I was giving out those recipes with altered ingredients on purpose, so others would fail. Which was ridiculous. I’m happy to share and even offered to hold a “baking class” to try to find out what these cooks were doing to make the cookies hard.

With all baking, for instance, I follow the specified time broadly, but I watch and check too. Sometimes the items just need to come out of the oven sooner and that can’t be predicted.

I know when something is done by looking at it, touching it, sometimes. Plants are the same way, the ones I grow just feel right to me, they look right. So the orchids are the last ones in my wasted effort category.

Like relationships with the people we care for, I don’t force them or try too hard now. There are so many beautiful blooms out there, so much love. And I am safe in the knowledge that somehow, like these surprising Hymenocallis bulbs, they will find me.

Hymenocallis

Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 7:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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Watching My Terrain, Too

I kept snapping away at the star-like lily with my camera. This is the first year for these spectacular bulbs. And they have such an unusual appearance that of course they are right at home in my wild garden.

The sweet new neighbors, who fly helicopters for a living, eyed them suspiciously. I suppose if you have such a precarious career, you might need a more tame bloom to provide calm in your off hours. The Hymenocallis, Greek for “beautiful membrane,” is definitely not tame.

So, I clicked away on my knees, then practically lying down on the sidewalk at one point, trying to get the pinwheel blossom centered in exactly the right background. The blossoms, radiant white trumpets pushing from a base of long spirals, look best in contrast against grass or bushes painted deep green by the warmth of spring.

And what about us, I wondered? What setting looks best on us?

I remembered how I looked when I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t talking about it, but the state of my mind and heart were in plain view.

I lost so much weight people were calling me “emaciated.” And I cut off my long curly hair, not in a flattering short cut, but in a pixie or nearly a buzz cut. I wore much beige, khaki clothing, nondescript. I wasn’t sure my gender was particularly obvious, in fact. I wasn’t engineering my silent scream on purpose. I wasn’t even aware my state of mind was so obvious until I saw pictures much later.

This happened several times over the course of about a decade, during my first marriage. Then finally I left that life. My hair grew out, for good, and my clothes regained their color and flair. I often have on shawls now, light in texture but vivid in color.

I carefully watch my terrain now. The flowers I grow taught me this.

Published in: on May 17, 2010 at 11:19 pm  Comments (3)  
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A Clean Slate

I had dinner with friends I’ve known for years and stunned them with word we were moving to a new house a few miles away. And right away one of them asked, “What about your garden? What will you bring with you?”

I hadn’t thought about that. I mean, this isn’t just the place where I brought home my infant son 16 years ago. The green thumb I inherited from both parents was born here, a fusion of Mother, who ignores plants to robust health, and my father, whose gardening alchemy seemed channeled, full of soul and spirit, a communion of sorts.

We thought for years we would rent out this house after we found something else. But now it looks like we won’t. I mean, I can’t just start digging up plants. That’s not right. After all, my flashy elements are portable, like the Angel’s Trumpets, which I grow mainly in pots. I grow the giant zinnias from seed and I have plenty of cleome collected in a glass jar.

But what about the starburst hydrangea? I love that dainty but robust plant. I’ve never seen another like it. I really don’t think I can leave it behind. It’s too special.

And what about the tea roses? They strain to bloom every spring. When I moved in, the elm outside my back gate was on the small side. But with each year it throws more shade over the roses in my yard. It is a wonder the roses bloom at all now. The blush rose bush in the row of four is dead, in fact. The yellow rarely blooms at all. The dark red, the one with the deepest spice scent I’ve ever known, occasionally blooms. Only the fuschia retains hints of its former glory

If I were a new resident, I might just decide the roses had to go. But couldn’t I take them to the new house? I have the room. I have the sun. What is the ethics of this?

After all, I’ll be leaving so much behind in these small spaces — the peony bushes, the Stargazer lilies, which grow more beautiful every year. There’s a dogwood tree and the holly and many hostas. Linda gave me the big beautiful blue green hosta before she left to move back to Alabama. The others, all colors, also were gifts. I bought the bleeding heart to have something blooming early, in the shade. I’ve put in new bulbs every year, all kinds of things. Those I’ll leave, of course.

Then, I keep remembering what happened next door, when a neighbor sold her house after her mother-in-law fixed up the back yard as a gift. It was so beautiful. There were many plants, flowers and a small tree. The neighbor asked through the agents if she could take a few hostas and the new owner said no.

Then, most of the plants died, the hostas, the roses. The new owners didn’t move in for a while and it was a very hot summer. I tried to save them. I trained the hose over the fence every chance I got, but it wasn’t enough. Then, when the new owners did move in, the back yard became in reality a bathroom for the resident large dogs and the rest of the plants died. Even the pretty little tree was killed and had to be pulled out.

Still, I know the answer to my friend’s question. It will break my heart to say goodbye to these plants I’ve nurtured over the years. — my first offspring of the earth, so to speak. But I will have to let them go. All of them (well, maybe not the starburst). And I will start all over.

A clean green slate.

Published in: on May 5, 2010 at 1:33 am  Comments (6)  
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Once Upon a Greenhouse

We moved into this house just weeks before I became a mother. It was my refuge. It sheltered us as we cried a river of tears, all of us adjusting to a new life, a new way of being. And those tears reshaped us, molding us into a family.

Later, the house spoke, telling me that the roses, the dogwoods and the holly that had been there when we moved in weren’t enough, that I needed to garden in the small spaces outside for the first time in decades. So I went to nurseries and garden centers and talked to people there about what to do and brought things home to plant.

Then I discovered the wonder of seeds. And I found, over the years, that I was a gardener. We all are, it just takes time and learning from others to find the things within to bring out into the open, to coax into bloom. When we are gardening from that inner space, we are so like our gardens.

Someone I grew up with told me recently that she has great success growing orchids. I didn’t know that, but I wasn’t surprised. She yearns to live in a tropical climates. That’s like me and my obsession with Angel’s Trumpets, another tropical native. I’m too far north to be happy, really, so I grow the angels instead, defying nature, surrounding myself with the accessories of the climate I yearn for.

I place the angels in pots outside my Virginia home, the house where I felt my late father’s presence, so palpable, on the night before my son was born. I was waiting for dawn to break so I could wake up my husband and go to the hospital where our son was born. My eyes were drawn over and over to a dark corner of the basement family room where I chose to wait, while in labor. I could not see my father, but I sensed him there, in just that spot. At times I was sure I detected his scent. He kept my terror at bay.

And it may be for that reason I have resisted leaving here. We grew out of this house long ago. We never intended to stay long-term. My husband has wanted to move for years and then a couple of years ago my son, now 16, started lobbying for that.

So now it is time to move on. Another house is in the works. It is a a storybook house with plenty of space for my gardening, a lovely wooden deck and a covered back porch that needs a ceiling fan and wicker furniture.

It also has a greenhouse window, over the kitchen sink. I’m always so sad in the winter, because of the northern Virginia cold, because I can’t garden at all. Even indoors, in my current house, the light is wrong, the electric heat too drying.

But in the new house, there’s a greenhouse window. When I saw it, I knew. The house had spoken to me.

Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 4:02 am  Leave a Comment  
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They Left Camellias

Driving through the old neighborhood, I noticed Ellis and Vannie’s magnificent rowhouse on Capitol Hill was for sale again. I pulled over and got out of the car. I looked for traces of them. Silly, I know, they passed away years ago.

The yard was tidy. But to my eye, it was much less beautiful, a shadow of its former self. Ellis, who moved to D.C. with Vannie during the 1960s, was an artist. Their yard looked as though the art inside the red brick house had tumbled and roiled through the walls and windows and splashed into the landscape. Or the other way around.

I saw a row of Lenton Roses that might have been an Ellis signature, something for winter. Several rose bushes lined the fence. Tulips pushed up from the soil, waiting to bloom. Then I saw it.

A camellia bush, stretching high and strong against the brick, was pushing up from the ground. It was covered in red blooms. The camellia, the Alabama state flower. Of course, Ellis’s signature, a gift for Vannie.

They were the most charming couple I’ve ever known, an old-fashioned love story. They had an open house every weekend, brunch, which Ellis cooked while Vannie held court at the massive table in the antiques-filled dining room. Friends were invited, acquaintances, and they were told to bring people.

That house rang with laughter and the blonde, green-eyed Vannie’s deep south Alabama accent. No topic of conversation was off limits. Ellis worked for a U.S. senator, then began to paint after retirement, becoming an artist of note on Capitol Hill and Washington.

I had missed Alabama after moving, but going to this house was like being home. Vannie would talk about Zelda Fitzgerald, about her recovery at home in Montgomery from a “nervous breakdown.” She would come into their clothing store everyday and buy one white linen handkerchief. “Scott just ruined that girl,” Vannie would say, emphasis on “ruined,” twisting a large emerald ring around and around on her long, thin finger.

Then she would brighten, talking about Hank Williams, who as a boy had a shoeshine business on the Montgomery outskirts. He also would drop by their store, to tell Ellis not to allow his estranged wife to charge anything else to his accounts once they parted ways.

One time I was living in Baltimore and working in D.C. when a blizzard hit, stranding me. Vannie and Ellis insisted I stay with them. I was working the overnight shift in the news business, so I slept during the day, in a serene guest room up high in a turret of the house.

When I got up, they had a lavish dinner prepared. They served it on fine china with silver and crystal goblets. I remember a chicken dish served with a sauce of cherries jubilee. They treated me like a princess.

They grew up and Ellis got sick. Vannie went first, though, dying unexpectedly. Then, Ellis passed away within weeks.

I have a row of his paintings above my sofa. It is fitting that they are of flowers and trees. I wasn’t gardening when Ellis was alive, but he knew, he told me I would. The paintings comfort me.

And now I know about the camellia, a living legacy. The flowers tremble there after the snowiest winter I can remember. Radiant, still, from the years of laughter and the limitless kindness that flowed from a sweet, inimitable home.

Published in: on April 3, 2010 at 2:22 am  Comments (4)  
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