Wednesday, December 24, 2014

In the Bleak Midwinter

By Christina Rossetti, 1830-1894
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Men's Garden Club that Was But Isn't

Here's a blast from the past--a short posting about a men's garden club.  It took less than a year in the 1940s before the guys held their first ladies' night--and the ladies judged the refreshments prepared by the men--and gave every "chef" a blue ribbon.  Smart women!  The story will take you only three minutes to read.  Click HERE to go to my posting on the University of Maryland Extension's "Grow It! Eat It!" blog. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Free Baltic Photo Tour: Thoughts of a Master Gardener

Yesterday’s posting featured Baltic container gardens.  Today’s posting includes 12 miscellaneous photographs of scenes that this Master Gardener found thought-provoking.  I took the photos last month on Ellen’s and my tour of ancient Baltic port cities aboard the Oceania Cruises “Marina.”

Do Baltic peoples prefer brilliant flowers
as an antidote to their long, dark winters?
Flower shop in Tallinn, Estonia

Streets can be permeable, right,
to absorb rain water and protect waterways?
Tallinn, Estonia

Aha! Finnish gardeners "enjoy" dandelions too!
Porvoo, Finland

Can you imagine the garden that must
grow behind this garden gate and wall?
Porvoo, Finland

Latvian legend says if you find a fern in bloom
in the forest, you'll have good luck forever.
Does this qualify?
Park in Riga, Latvia

Many cultures still celebrate natural events
such the summer solstice, as these
decorations in Riga, Latvia, attest

What flowers do gardeners in northern countries
buy for their gardens at the plant market?
Helsinki, Finland

And what herbs do Finnish gardeners plant?
Cilantro, chives, basil, parsley....
Helsinki, Finland, plant market

"Grow local, eat local" is
apparently also a popular trend in Helsinki

The Finns apparently have figured out
the key to sustainable deer management.
Fast-food stand at Helsinki outdoor market

Was I the only tourist to pause at a window to take a photo
of this stunning rooftop garden at the Hermitage,
St. Petersburg, Russia?

I don't pity the German aristocrats who in centuries
past admired the garden from a window of the castle
at Schwerin

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Free Baltic Photo Tour: Container Gardens

Time to clean out that purse?
Helsinki restaurant sidewalk table container garden

Visiting Baltic countries and their ancient ports via the Ocean Cruises “Marina” last month provided Ellen and me lots of photo ops of intriguing architecture, collections of art and other exhibits in world-class museums, and even a statue of Czar Alexander II topped by a resting seagull, but it suddenly dawned on me several days into the trip that I was spending some of my most relaxing moments taking photographs of what for the lack of a better term I’ll just call “Master Gardener Shots.”

I’ll post the photos in two parts.  Part 1—this posting—includes 10 photographs of container gardens, which add greenery and towers of attractive color to cold gray cobblestone and granite centers of many ancient Baltic cities in such countries as Finland, Lithuania, and Latvia.  My only regret is that I had to “click and trudge on” and couldn’t stay for a day or two to meet and chat with those who care for the containers to learn more about these beautiful creations.

My garden boots have high tops, so this won't work for me.
Helsinki restaurant container gardens
Part 2—the next posting—will include miscellaneous photos that I found eye-catching or thought-provoking.  I hope you enjoy each photo and that it sparks a daydream about your own gardening adventure.

Petunia towers liven up the town square
in Klaipeda, Lithuania

Geranium tree in Klaipeda, Lithuania

Flowers separating restaurant seating from street,
Riga, Latvia


Geranium trough in Riga, Latvia

Containers used to expand restaurant into street,
Riga, Latvia

Containers separating outdoor market from
sidewalks and streets, Riga, Latvia
Containers separate large restaurant and traffic
in Riga, Latvia
Grass--the ultimate cover crop for a container garden?
Restaurant, Riga, Latvia

Yes, I did take a photograph of a Finnish seagull
 visiting the statue of Czar Alexander II 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Strawberries, strawberries, strawberries

Allstar strawberries ... pan after pan after pan

When it rains, you raise your umbrella.  When your strawberries ripen, you pick and pick and pick.

I had feared the “Polar Vortex” inspired deep freeze of winter 2013-2014 had damaged our strawberry patch, but the Allstar plant variety I planted two years is producing well this spring, and Ellen and I this week have picked more berries than we can possibly eat.

Wednesday morning, for example, in about 15 minutes we filled our aluminum garden pan with the bright red fruit.  Curious, I got out our kitchen scale and the needle pointed to just under four pounds (1.8 kg).  We had picked almost that many Tuesday.  And Friday morning I picked even more—heaping the garden pan and a smaller plastic container.

We’ve been eating fresh strawberries on our cereal every morning for more than a week.  Our daughter has volunteered to eat some—and did some picking herself one evening.  I’ve recycled tomato clamshell packages to gift two neighbors with prime berries.  Our resident catbird couple has been enjoying some of the sweet fruit too.

And still we have too many strawberries.  Wednesday night we got panicky and baked some shortcake on which we heaped berries, berries, and more berries.  Love that panic!  And we enjoyed leftover shortcake with strawberries again Thursday evening.  And every morning we heap berries on our morning cereal.  What next—freezer jam?

Panic supper for Ancient and Mrs. Gardener
I figure our strawberry harvest is peaking this week and that we’ve picked more than 15 pounds of berries.  Say we pick another eight pounds.  That would be 23 pounds of fruit from the original 25 plants of 2012 and their offspring, called “daughters” in berry ads.  A local farm charges U-pickers $2.75 a pound. A pound clamshell of berries at our local Giant Foods supermarket recently have averaged $2.99, so our $26.50 investment in the plants in 2012 this year yielded fruit worth nearly $60.00  Not bad—or more appropriately—how sweet.  This Frugal Gardener wishes our bank paid interest at that rate.

I followed directions that came with the plants from the Indiana Berry & Plant Co. and kept my two small beds narrow to maximize yield.  In addition to producing beautiful fruit, the two narrow strawberries beds serve as borders of two small vegetable gardens.

This Ancient Gardener sees only one downside to growing strawberries.  It seems that over the years strawberry plants are growing shorter.  Or maybe my legs are growing longer and my arms are getting shorter.  Oh, my Aching Back.  I need to start working in the price of a bottle of acetaminophen tablets into my strawberry cost analysis.  But certainly the harvest is worth a few aches and pains.

In about five years, when it’s time to plant a new bed of strawberries and I’ll be zeroing in on 80 (age, not miles per hour), perhaps I’ll have to start planting only “tall” varieties of our favorite fruits and vegetables, ones that don’t require me to stoop and stand and stoop and stand.  Or maybe by then some genius will have invented a portable garden elevator so I can just hop on, push “up,” and won’t have to struggle to stand upright after berry picking.

Life is good in the gardens at Meadow Glenn.  And that’s the real lowdown.  Really.

Strawberry shortcake--again?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Tomato Patch surprise: Going against the grain

My Cape Cod weeder, tool of choice
to uproot wheat seedlings
I took a shortcut when I mulched my tomatoes with straw this year.  I didn’t put sheets of newspaper under the mulch.  And this week I’ve had to uproot hundreds of bright-green wheat seedlings that were poking up through the beige straw.

Taking care of the seedlings was relatively easy.  I used my Cape Cod weeder (see photo).  Wherever I saw a wheat seedling, I just pushed and pulled the weeder’s angled blade at the soil line under the mulch.  The young wheat plants easily yielded their grip of the garden soil.  As I finished weeding around a tomato plant, I fluffed up the mulch—leaving the Tomato Patch looking “like new.”

Time:  Less than two hours.  I probably would have spent that much time easily if I had put down sheets of newspaper before I put down the straw—so I’ll call time for both approaches a draw.  My only second thought was that putting down paper probably makes for a nicer looking bed and prevents growth of lots of nuisance weeds.  Lesson learned: I think I’ll put down paper again next spring.

A wheat plant growing in the Tomato Patch is a weed, to my way of thinking.  Any plant growing where someone doesn’t want it is, well, a “weed.”  I want white clover to grow in most of our yard—so it’s a welcome ingredient of our turf.  Someone else who wants a “perfect” fescue lawn, of course, would consider white clover—you got it—a “weed.”

But with all the wheat weeds, I’ve been wondering why so many wheat seeds were in the beautiful bales of straw I bought at a local farm.  Was the combine not operating perfectly?  Were the seed heads a day or two too “green” to yield all of their seeds to the machine?  Or was this “not that unusual harvest byproduct”?

I don’t know the answer, but my spring surprise in the Tomato Patch is over.  The uprooted wheat plants shriveled when the sun dried their roots and became part of the mulch protecting my tomato plants from rain-splashed garden soil that may carry a variety of tomato-disease organisms.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Always peonies on Memorial Day

Dad used to let me go with him in the 1940s when he made his annual trip on Decoration Day, as Memorial Day was called then, to the cemetery where his parents were buried, but when we got there, he always said, “Stay in the car.  I’ll be back in a minute.”

I’d watch him walk across the grass, stop in front of his parents’ gravestone, stand in silence as if thinking, and then stoop to leave a Mason jar filled with peonies.

I often wondered what my dad was thinking when he stood there—because I don’t think he could remember his parents, Warren and Angeline Nixon.  They died two days apart in October 1918, both age 29, of the “Spanish Flu,” leaving six children, the oldest nine, the youngest two months, who were divided between maternal and paternal relatives for safe keeping and raising.

What does a man who became an orphan when he had just turned three think about when he stands at his parents’ grave?

Answers to that question have crossed my mind through the years, but, really, I have no idea because I really believe Dad didn’t remember his parents.  He never told me anything about them other than a few facts that others had told him.  On our cemetery trips he never hinted about what the annual visit meant to him.  I’ve always thought that his wanting me to “wait in the car” meant his thoughts were deeply personal.

Maybe the peonies were a clue to his thoughts.  If our own peonies were dropping petals as Decoration Day approached, Dad would scour the county to find a fresh bunch.  Whatever sense he had of his parents must have been positive—or why would he go to all that effort?  Or perhaps he had some instinctive love for the man and woman who gave him life.

When I walked out to the Shop this morning to get my wheelbarrow and tools to do some landscaping work, I notice that the buds of our red peonies had broken open during the night.  Memories of ancient trips to a New Jersey cemetery—of my dad pausing in thought at his parents’ grave—and of peonies in a Mason jar—flooded my thoughts.

I have no doubt that Dad loved my brother, Jay, and me deeply, as only a parent can, and as Ellen and I love our children, Brian and Lynn. 

Peony blooms last just a few days and are gone.  Love and memories last forever. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Oh, hail!

"All hail broke loose!"

What a beautiful late-spring day—sunny, temperature reaching into the upper 80s by mid-afternoon, with a touch of humidity reminding us that summer will soon arrive at Meadow Glenn here in Central Maryland.

About 3 p.m., the sky clouded over.  By 3:30 hail—big pieces of hail—started dropping here and there as the temperature plummeted within minutes to 70.  Soon our gardens became a war zone—with pellets the size of dimes punching through rhubarb leaves, blenderizing young Red Sails lettuce plants, and ripping leaves off tomato plants. 
Blenderized Red Sails lettuce plants

One of our garage doors was open, and nickel-size hailstones bounced the full length of the garage and stopped at the kitchen door.  What if our cars had been outside?

By 4:20 the sun was shining brightly again.  The hail was rapidly melting as the thermometer crept into the high 70s and thunder faded as the storm clouds headed east.  I checked releases by the National Weather Service, and they reported hail the size of “quarters” and “gold balls.”  I’m glad the storm exited here before the hail became the size of “bricks.”

It’s time to wait and see what happens with our damaged garden plants.  I hope our tomato plants—and our lettuce too—will recover.  I think the tomatoes will recover nicely—but the lettuce plants are so damaged they may have to releaf from their roots.

Damaged Sungold tomato plant

In our gardens I could find only one survivor of the storm—a Garden Gnome riding a tortoise that some suspect is Testudo, the official mascot of the University of Maryland.   I posed a question to the unhappy Garden Gnome:  “What was it like out in the storm?”

The Gnome simply replied, “All hail broke loose!”

My old wheelbarrow: free flat or flat free?

Flat wheel off, no-flat wheel on

I never cease marveling at our unknown ancestor who invented wheels.  Without wheels civilization as we know it would grind to a halt—which is what happened when I grabbed the handles of my wheelbarrow recently and discovered its tire was flat—absolutely and irreparably flat.

I had put a small bale of straw into my barrow to move it to what would be Tomato Patch 2014.  What does a small bale of straw weigh—25 pounds or so?  Whatever it weighed, it was too much for the wheelbarrow tire, which in a few seconds went from apparently OK to absolutely flat under the weight of the bale.

I was surprised by the flat because a year ago I had gotten tired of pumping up the tubeless tire because it constantly leaked at a rate roughly equivalent with the load being carried.  So I invested in a tube and installed it myself—not an easy task because I had to remove the wheel assembly from the wheelbarrow, loosen the tire from the rim, insert the tube, position the stem through the rim, and pump up the repaired tire.

I learned from that experience why we don’t repair our own tubeless tires.  It’s tough work without the proper equipment and tools.  A mechanic or helper at a tire store or auto service shop can do the job in a few minutes.  It probably took me more than an hour, and the result wasn’t something to brag about because the new stem made a weird angle where it exited through the rim.

And that weird angle probably was what caused the flatter-than-a-pancake flat.  An extra heavy load of four bags of LeafGro probably made the tube and stem rub against the metal edge of the rim, slicing the stem as cleanly as if I had used a penknife or razor blade.

So after years of minor frustration over having to pump up the leaking tubeless tire and then finding the irreparable damage to the tube I had inserted to solve the problem, I surrendered—absolutely.   I got out my socket set and removed the four bolts holding the flat tire to the wheelbarrow handles and removed the complete tire/wheel assembly.  I wrote down tire size (4.00-6), diameter of the axle and of the assembled wheel and tire and went to our computer to do some window shopping.

I searched “4.00-6 solid wheelbarrow tires” or something like that and after a few false starts found that two nearby Home Depot stores stocked a “universal” solid tire for wheelbarrows.  Before I knew it I was checking out at one of the stores with a solid tire in my shopping cart.  At home, I put the wheelbarrow on the back of my Tacoma’s bed and in short order installed the new tire.

Time:  Oh, maybe 40 minutes—probably four times what it would have taken an expert to do the job—but the service charge was “right.”

And the cost: $34.98 for the new wheel and tire assembly, only about 70% of the cost of a new wheelbarrow.

Was that an outlandish price for this ole Frugal Gardener to pay?  I don’t think so.  A new wheelbarrow would have a tubeless tire that doubtless would have started leaking annoyingly at some point.  A new barrow would probably have a plastic tray or bin that probably would crack or otherwise fail long before the steel bin of my old barrow will.  I also like the dents and scrapes in my old wheelbarrow.  They’re sort of “garden tool art” that we created together, one ding at a time as we happily carted who-knows-what from here to there in our gardens or to the compost piles.   In the fall I get a small degree of satisfaction as I hose out the bin and wipe down my work buddy with a light spray of WD40.

Finally, I smile just a bit because, really, I’ve recycled my old wheelbarrow and hopefully we’ll work together hands-around-handles for many more years.

Junk crusher at the Alpha Ridge Landfill recycling center, I’ve cheated you again.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

I love Erica!

Winter-blooming Erica

Yes, I love Erica and was shocked when I found her dead in our garden this spring after our frigid winter—when nighttime temperatures in early January approached zero degrees Fahrenheit.

I love Erica x darleyensis ‘Mediterranean Pink’, sometimes called heather, for two reasons.  First, it’s the only plant that blooms through the winter in our gardens, usually from October into May.  I love finding Erica’s pink flowers poking through a crust of snow.  And second, our local bambits here in Deer Country don’t browse on Erica.

But the “dead of winter” 2013-2014 left our mature Erica dead indeed.  Just days after I had cut back its brittle, dry branches and dug up its roots in late March, I found and bought a new Erica at our local Lowe’s Home Improvement store.  Within hours I had planted the new Erica where we can admire it for many winters to come.  It’s still in bloom, and when the temperatures rise into the 50s, bumblebees already have come to sip nectar.

I love winter-flowering Erica.  The deer don’t.  Long live Erica.
Freeze-killed Erica, guarded by Teddy
Long live our new Erica!

Monday, March 17, 2014

St. Paddy’s Day Snow Visitors

Nosing for red-hot poker leaves

 St. Paddy’s Day 2014 snowstorm left us with about nine inches of snow—and some unusual visitors to our bird feeders.  With the extra snow and ice cover we’ve had this winter, I think I now know why I uncharacteristically bought 80 pounds of sunflower seeds last fall, rather than the usual 40.

Cleaning up sunflower-seed shells

Bird feeders, of course, are for birds—and we see lots of them. Typical birds scrounging for seeds under our feeders are white-throated sparrows, song sparrows, juncos, and cardinals.  Chickadees, titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, and downy and red-breasted woodpeckers feed at the suet and seed feeders.

St. Paddy’s Day snow, however, brought several new visitors.  One was a rufous-sided towhee that was ground feeding with several juncos and white-throated sparrows.  Then arrived three deer, which normally don’t come so close to our house during daylight hours.
Towhee deer-watching
But the deer apparently were desperate for food—any kind of food.  One doe pushed her nose through the snow and pulled out several dead red-hot poker leaves, which normally deer don’t browse because the leaves are so tough and stringy.  And then the three all but inhaled sunflower-seed shells discarded by birds, while the towhee watched from a kousa dogwood tree.

Nearby a garden gnome, with green jacket and, hopefully, insulated underwear, poked his head through the snow to deliver a “Happy St. Paddy’s Day” greeting.
"Happy St. Paddy's Day!"

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Winter Tragedy


Sheathed by freezing rain
pine boughs kiss the earth
until with resounding crack
death snuffs life,
vital sap oozing onto ground.
                           -- Robert W. Nixon
                               February 5, 2014

Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review: “Eating on the Wild Side,” by Jo Robinson

Have you ever wondered how to pick the perfect watermelon out of the bin at the supermarket?  Or how best to store that salad mix you just bought?  Or whether there’s a nutritional difference between white and yellow corn, green or red lettuce, or the 15 varieties of apples available at your local produce stand?  Or whether strawberries will become sweeter if you let them sit on your counter for a day or two?

If you like answers to questions like that, you’ll enjoy Jo Robinson’s book “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health” (Little, Brown & Co., 2013), available at books stores in your neighborhood or online and at public libraries (where I checked out a copy), and also in audio and E-book editions.

“Eating on the Wild Side” is not about searching for wild asparagus along country lanes or picking mushrooms under your pine trees.  Its 17 chapters cover commonly available vegetables and fruits, each chapter covering such topics as: history and how each vegetable or fruit has changed, usually for the worse, through its encounters with us humans over centuries and sometimes millenniums; how to forage for nutritious varieties when you’re buying at the super market, farm stand, or U-pick; how to best store and prepare them; and recommended varieties, with some basic details about each.  Each chapter ends with bulleted “Points to Remember” that cover main points and will comfort you if you are time challenged.

Here are a few of the many things I learned from this book:

1.  As a general rule, darker colored vegetables and fruits are more nutritious than their lighter colored cousins.  Red or bronze lettuce is better than green.  Yellow corn is better than white.  But there are exceptions to the rule.  For example, a light-green Granny Smith apple is more nutritious than a Pink Lady (my favorite in recent years), and a white peach is more nutritious than a yellow one.

2. Sometimes a cooked vegetable or fruit has more nutritional value than a raw one.  An example is sweet potatoes: “Steaming, roasting, or baking them can double their antioxidant value, but boiling reduces it.  Ounce per ounce, the skin is more nutritious than the flesh, so eat the whole root.”  What, eat a sweet-potato skin?  I find that suggestion hard to swallow.

3.  Red cherry tomatoes have more of the anti-oxidant lycopene than large red beefsteak tomatoes.

4.  Green tomatoes sometimes are gassed with ethylene to turn them red—but sometimes the gas is also used to turn green oranges orange and green grapefruits and bananas yellow.  Who would have suspected?

Vegetable chapters cover lettuce and other salad greens (arugula, radicchio, spinach); alliums (garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, chives, scallions); corn; potatoes; other root crops (carrots, beets, and sweet potatoes); tomatoes; crucifers (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale); legumes (beans, peas, lentils, edamame); and artichokes, asparagus, and avocados.

Fruit chapters cover apples; blueberries and blackberries (loganberries, boysenberries, marionberries); strawberries, cranberries, and raspberries; stone fruits (peaches, nectarines, apricots, cherries, plums and prunes); grapes and raisins; citrus fruits (sweet, cara cara, blood, and Valencia oranges and tangelos, mandarins), grapefruit, lemons and limes; tropical fruits (bananas, pineapples, papayas, mangoes, guavas); and melons (watermelons, cantaloupes, honeydews, casabas).

I like the book because it contains so much good, practical information, and I am reluctant to mention a debatable downside: Some possible medical or health benefits mentioned, such as phytonutrients in vegetables and fruits, are based on test-tube or animal research and not yet duplicated in human health studies.

For a general example, sometimes referenced are oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) values researched by the United States Department of Agriculture.  Wikipedia says this about ORAC:  “A wide variety of foods has been tested using this method, with certain spices, berries and legumes rated highly in extensive tables once published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), but withdrawn in 2012 as biologically invalid, stating that no physiological proof in vivo existed in support of the free-radical theory.  Consequently, the ORAC method, derived only in in vitro experiments, is no longer considered relevant to human diets or biology by the USDA.”

Of course, as nutritional research and human studies continue, researches may eventually prove what today is not scientifically accepted by the majority.

The dust jacket of “Eating on the Wild Side” identifies Jo Robinson as a “health writer and food activist” and author of 14 books.  If you want additional information about the author’s approach to food and nutrition, check out her website at

If you’ve read this book, please share your thoughts in a Comment below.

Update:  The January 30, 2014, print edition of the Washington Post, p. A2, carries an article by Ariana Eunjung Cha, “Study questions antioxidant use in cancer patients,” that indicates some current research findings about antioxidants.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Gardening in January

SSE on Facebook

Temperature at dawn this morning was 7°F, and it topped out mid-afternoon at 19°.  Our landscape is crusted white with Tuesday’s six-inch snowfall.  It's time to inventory the left-over packets in my seed jar in the fridge, page through a stack of new seed catalogs, and dream about veggie and flower gardens 2014.  Yes, gardening begins in January.

Illustration courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.