Thursday, September 14, 2006

Could You Substitute Chicken?

Once about twenty years ago, while we were living in California, Hank and I took the children on a trip to Maui. One evening while we were there, we were feeling especially worldly, got a sitter, and went out to have dinner at the motel restaurant that overlooked the island of Molokai.

Hank is one of those people who can talk to anybody about anything, and this evening he struck up a conversation with some folks at a nearby table. We chatted about being from South Carolina and living in California and how much we liked California, but were a little homesick for the South. Hank casually mentioned, apropos of our meal I guess, that he and the children had really grown to like the homemade pasta I’d learned to make.

“Possum?” the neighbors responded in unified amazement. “You cook Possum?”

By now, Mario Batalli or Paula Deen may have come up with a good Possum pasta recipe. If so, I might pass it along to my friend Kent Smith, who asked me the other day if I knew what to do about possums in his garden. They especially prefer his yard, he said, to the exclusion of his neighbors’. Though they hadn’t done much damage to the plants, they like to dig through the grass and pinestraw, creating a mess and insinuating themselves upon the hospitality of Kent and his wife Carol (who works at Plum Pudding, a great downtown kitchen store). The Smiths are happy transplants from colder climates, where there are also possums, but people don’t expect that you have them for dinner.

Should they choose to go this route, recipes for possum abound, probably not in any of the cookbooks on the shelves at Plum Pudding, but on the internet and in a few of my old cookbooks as well. My mother passed along to me a faded blue copy of Mrs. S.R. Dull’s Southern Cooking, first published in 1928, that includes in the preface a tribute to Mrs. Dull, as well as a chronicle of her forbears. The cookbook was the one my mother’s most often consulted, though I’m sure she never tried “Alma’s Recipe for ‘Possum.”

Charleston Receipts, published in 1950, also mentions a recipe for Roast ‘possum. I started to include some of the details, but decided that any recipe that includes the words “…pull off hair while hot” and “cut off ears, remove eyes and head if desired” would not likely tempt the modern appetites.

The National Gardening Association suggests that opossum control may be accomplished by keeping food or plants you’re growing covered, dusting with baby powder, cayenne pepper or blood meal. Loud noises scare them away they say, but might keep you and your neighbors awake as well. Otherwise, about the only solution is to trap them, being very careful to avoid the critter’s razor sharp teeth, and take them far away to release them. Or you can do the-other-thing-that-people-sometimes-do with large household pests – call Aiken Animal Control.

And if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em I guess. There is, believe it or not, a National Opossum Society which reminds us that Opossums are beneficial: eating the harmful, unwanted pests around your home such as snails, slugs, spiders, cockroaches, rats, mice and snakes. Think of the opossum as your free gardener. The opossum is known as “Nature’s Little Sanitation Engineer” for a good reason!
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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Iris: time to Split!

This Dutch Iris (I think) grows from bulbs, but may naturalize.

It’s an odd time of year to think about Irises, unless you happen to be reading of the mythological Iris, who took messages to the gods along the rainbow to the ends of the earth and lead the souls of women to the Elysian Fields.

The blooming Irises are named for the goddess because of their many colors. Most of them bloom in spring and summer – or not at all.

“Why didn’t my Iris bloom?” is a question I hear a lot, and I even heard a caller ask that of Roland Austin on South Carolina ETV’s “Making It Grow” the other night. Roland’s answer was, predictably, “It probably needs dividing.”

So, when and how does one go about dividing an iris? If it’s a Bearded Iris, this is the best time of year to go about the process. Here is a short version of how.

First, carefully dig and lift the Bearded Iris rhizomes out of the ground. The rhizomes are the long thin tuberous things with whispy roots growing out of them, from which the iris grows. Next, with a hose, clean off all the soil clinging to the rhizome so you can see what you’re doing. Then, cut off the leaves to about six inches. This will remind the rhizome to quit worrying about growing leaves and worry about growing next year’s flowers.

When you can clearly see the rhizome, inspect it for borers and rot. Get rid of any problem areas. Then, using a disinfected knife or pruner, separate the rhizomes into pieces at least three inches long. A fork in the rhizome is a good place to make a cut. Be sure each piece has healthy roots attached to it.

When you’re ready to replant your divisions, and you should replant as soon as possible, dig a shallow hole, about 2 to 3 inches deep and wide enough to spread out the rhizome’s roots. Make a mound in the center of the hole, just above soil level. Soak the soil in the planting hole and place a rhizome division in the center of the mound, spreading the roots around and down the mound. Cover the rhizome with no more than an inch or 2 of soil. “Like ducks on a pond,” is the rule of thumb for planting the bearded iris rhizomes. Plant them too deeply and they won’t bloom.

I found a great website with photos and complete instructions for dividing our bearded iris at

There’s another iris that I once loved, that used to bloom beautifully in my garden every spring. The delicate purple Siberian Irises are my favorites, but they produced nary a blossom this year.

Siberian Irises grow in clumps and mine, sad to say, have taken on a suicide pact with the clumping liriope that grows around them. Though they can be transplanted now, Siberians may do better to wait until spring to be split apart and divested of the grassy interloper. That is a chore I should put high on my list.

I should simply dig up the huge clump, divide it up with a sharp knife, try to pull out all the liriope, and put a piece back in the same spot it came from. Then I can share the rest.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Only Solution to September Mayhem May Be a Good Freeze

Morning Glory is thick as kudzu, reaching up into the sweetgum tree, twining around the rose bush, and covering the daylilies with a blanket of its heart shaped leaves. I have let my garden get away from me once again. Chaos reigns.

I think of leveling the whole mess and starting over, but decide against it. The morning glory flowers are dazzling on cool, September mornings, and I know there is not much to see beneath them.

Dozens of other interlopers have shown up around my garden, thanks to my inattention. Volunteer hackberry, wisteria, smilax, and Carolina cherry are the primary invaders. Elegant eleagnus bursts through on occasion as well.

Hole Number 9 at Augusta National is named Carolina Cherry, so it can’t be such a disreputable shrub, though Prunus caroliniana, is an opportunistic plant that tends to pop up whenever it can. With shiny, simple, alternate, evergreen leaves, it has black fruit that birds love to eat. The bark is gray-brown and smooth on young stems, becoming grooved and scaly on older stems. Carolina cherry is respectable enough to be sold as a landscaping tree, claiming kinship to other cherry laurels, such as Otto Luyken. It’s shade tolerant and can make a good border shrub.

Hackberries are tolerant of a variety of soils and climate conditions. For those reasons, you can see them popping up through the most well-manicured and densely planted borders. Its pale green, diaphanous leaves make an airy canopy above the warty trunk. I suppose a golfer would shy away from a hole called “Hackberry,” but the berries of these trees are a favorite of birds and a host of insects, such as the hackberry woolly aphid that develops on the leaves. The sticky “honeydew” from this insect rains heavy onto whatever sits beneath it, and if the object happens to be your car, you’ll want to do some serious pruning or resign to giving your car a daily bath.

The sound of Bill Peterson's old truck alerts me that he has arrived to take down the blasted tree, after years of suffering through sticky windshields and sooty leaf drop. Its loss will mean our thicket a little less thick, but our cars are a little more clean.

There are somewhere between 200 and 300 species of smilax vines, several of which can be found on the edges of my garden. The thorny catbrier has a pale, droopy leaf and we could surely do without it. But the handsome, smooth stemmed lanceolata always shows its glossy evergreen leaves best at Christmas when we can adorn our doorways and mantles with the stuff, just like our great grandmothers did before the days of twinkling lights and vinyl pine swags.

Virginia Creeper has taken a strong hold around my garden as well. This vine, with its leaves made up of five pointed leaflets, can be useful in covering a wall or fence, but it can be invasive. It is handsome in the fall when its leaves turn ruby red.

I read suggestions every year about planting marigolds now instead of mums, since the flowers will last longer and they’ll put on a better show. The suggestions hasn’t leaked to the garden centers, however, and the choices for adding color to the faded flower beds seem limited to mums and asters. It’s too soon to plant pansies, since we’ll have more warm days, so I spend an hour pulling up the weeds near the back door, fertilize the roses one more time, hunker down and wait for a freeze to do the rest of the cleaning for me.