Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Very Welcoming Place

Bell and I paid a visit to Sam and Linda Christine this week after Linda emailed me about a new plant that was blooming and ripening now in their magnificent garden. Last year Jenks Farmer, a Beech Island native and well known horticulturalist, had passed along some seeds to her from a plant he called “Plum Granny.” After seeing and smelling the Plum Granny fruit at the home of Jenks’ mother, Linda brought home the seeds and started them in pots.

Also known as ‘Queen Anne’s Pocket Melon,’ ‘Vine Pomegranate,’ and ‘Perfume Melon,’ this fruit is about the size of a small apple or a large plum and with skin that feels like a plum. When ripe, it is yellow with deep orange-red strips and white flesh. There isn’t much flesh, though the flesh is edible and some folks, I’m told, like its taste. Plum Granny is much better known for its fragrance than for its flavor, and a bowl of them, or even just a few, will fill a room with the melony smelling perfume.

In Harold McGee’s book, “On Food,” it’s listed under the category of “Minor Melons.” There are six groups of melons altogether, he tells us, and the Plum Granny is part of the Dudaim Group, which includes small, especially musky, melons used in the United States South. McGee also says that the name Dudaim is Hebrew for “love plants.” I don’t know if “love” is a verb, a noun, or an adjective in this case.

Plum Grannies are part of the huge Cucurbit Family that includes watermelons, cantelopes, cucumbers and squash and is thought to have been brought to the colonies by Europeans colonists. The plants will easily hybridize with other melons, including cantelopes, so it’s best not to have them growing near each other.

The Christines’ garden, as always, had some interesting flowering plants that were new to me. This time it was a dazzling flowering shrub called “Ixora.” There are many varieties of Ixora, but the flowers on this one were especially eye-catching. Imagine the mophead of a hydrangea with tiny, closely packed flowerets, in bright yellowy-orange.

Also called ‘Jungle Flame,’ ‘Flame-of-the-Woods,’ or ‘Jungle Geranium,’ this plant likes acidic, well-drained soil and makes a good evergreen hedge. That would make it perfect for Aiken conditions, except for one small problem – it is not winter hardy, and even temperatures in the thirties will damage the leaves.

Linda, and anyone else who is so fortunate as to have a greenhouse, can keep their Ixora inside when the temperatures drop and move it outdoors in the spring. If you’ve got a space inside with bright light, Ixora may also be kept as a houseplant just as you would a tropical Hibiscus. Any major pruning should be done in early spring as plants begin to send out new growth.

I don’t know that there is a more welcoming garden in the state as Sam and Linda Christines’. The daylilies were in full bloom, of course, as were the many varieties of hydrangeas. Folks from Connecticut had stopped by for a visit after seeing the article in the May issue of Southern Living Magazine. Linda presented me with a pot of basil, one of fennel, and some vining Plum Grannies ready to go on a trellis. Sam even tended to Bell while I took pictures. The Christines are pleased to show you around their garden as well. Call first - they're in the book.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Spoleto 2008 - An Ecumenical Weekend

We had not meant to stay in “Charleston’s only Kosher Bed and Breakfast.” It just happened. Broad Street Guest House happened to be where we wanted (Broad Street, Charleston, South Carolina). And available when we wanted (during Spoleto) with an attached carriage house that made it easy to get all the stuff we travel with (we do not travel light) in and out of the car.We arrived, as instructed, before 7 p.m. on Friday in keeping with the guest house rules for observing Shabbat. “Shalom ya’ll” was posted on a plaque beside the front door, and the Charleston single house, built before the turn of the century – the last century – was filled with aromas that promised good food to come.

Breakfast was provided and, for Orthodox Jews, other Kosher meals are provided as well. We had other fish to fry, or to fish to eat, since every visit to Charleston, even during Spoletto, is as much about finding new restaurants and enjoying the familiar ones as it is about anything else.Getting our Explorer into the narrow parking place in back of the house was the only hitch in the day, and once that was done, we decided the rest of our traveling would be done on foot. But that was easy from the house, located as it was, just a few blocks from King Street.
Fleet Landing, a casual restaurant on Concord Street, just a block from East Bay, was our first stop before "La Cenerentola" at the Galliard Auditorium. Fried Oysters with Southern Comfort Barbeque Sauce, served over Lowcountry Creamy Grits, with Applewood Smoked Bacon & Cheddar Cheese sounds just as rich and delicious as it tasted. An appetizer serving was all I needed, while my husband had a hamburger, better than anything he’s had in a long time, he said.
Saturday morning, we met the other guests at Hadassah Rothenberg’s charming B&B. Hadassah is passionate about her faith and seemed ready to share with us anything we wanted to know. We learned that our breakfast was an Israeli breakfast, with cucumbers, tomatoes and feta cheese, plenty of fresh fruit and thick slices of homemade bread. Breakfasts the following day were more elaborate, with luscious fruit smoothies, bread pudding and more of the tomatoes, cucumbers and feta.

We learned about keeping Shabbat, that it is a time for rest and study, visiting with family. We especially like the idea of the Shabbat Nap, a tradition we were ready to adopt immediately.
We spent the day doing Spoleto things, Chamber Music for Hank and a lecture on Long Leaf Pine Restoration, by Jack Hitt, and Rice and Sea Island Cotton culture, by Richard Porcher, for me. Perhaps my favorite Spoletto experience and possibly the least expensive, was the Piccolo Spoleto performance at the First (Scots) Presbyterian Church by Charleston Pro Musica and The College of Charleston Madrigal Singers. The church's magnificent acoustics offer the perfect setting for the program, billed as "An eclectic program with some of the most beautiful melodies of the past featuring a diverse collection of instruments including a large variety of percussion, with percussionist extraordinaire, Danny Mallon." It was breathtaking.

After our own Shabbat nap, we spent the evening talking with Hadassah in the cozy courtyard behind the house, feeling like cousins who’d stopped by for a visit.

At 10 p.m., late for us, we walked across the street to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, where we heard the Charleston Renaissance Ensemble perform Cathedral music ranging from 12th century chant to majestic High Renaissance polyphony.
Sunday, after church at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, our favorite place to be on Sunday morning in Charleston, we went to hear Chamber Music, temporarily (we hope) being performed at the Memminger. Chamber Music director and pianist, Charles Wadsworth may walk slowly, but his fingers are still as nimble as a youth’s as he played a cello duet perfectly. As usual, he threw a modern piece in the middle of the program, Kodaly, I think.

And then on to our favorite place for Sunday Dinner – Jestine’s Kitchen on Meeting Street. We’ve been eating fried chicken and fried shrimp and oysters and pork chops and meat loaf and pot roast and fried okra at Jestine’s and washing it down with gallons of her perfect sweet tea almost since the day it opened. It’s not far from the College of Charleston, where two of our sons went to school, and it’s always seemed almost as good as going to Grandma's for lunch, maybe better, since you don’t have to help with the dishes. Dana Berlin, the restaurant’s owner, recognizes us and sometimes sends out a little extra treat, some bread pudding or a corn fritter.
We’re not the only ones to notice Jestine’s. Anthony Bourdain (“No Reservations”) visited there last fall and declared her fried green tomatoes first rate – although he probably used some other term.
Despite the fact that we’d nearly O.D.’d on fried seafood, we felt good when we checked out of The Broad Street Guest House on Monday morning. Maybe it was the kosher food. Maybe it was all the walking we did.

We also felt like we’d learned something, about being Jewish, about what a commitment it is to keep a kosher kitchen and to be an Orthodox Jew. We’d heard music across eight centuries, and that we loved best the older harmonies.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Hollyhock surprises

If you have been gardening for more than, say, a week or two, you have probably learned this one thing – plants have a mind of their own. Just as we raise our children to behave in a certain way and expect them to continue to exhibit this behavior into adulthood, they still surprise us now and then. And so it is in our garden – we read the label, plant in the right place at the right time, then comes the surprise.

Biennial plants are, perhaps, the most notorious for offering us surprises. Foxglove and parsley are both biennials, as is that other mallow, the Hollyhock.

As you know, a biennial plant is a flowering plant that takes two years to complete its lifecycle. First, it grows leaves, stems and roots, then enters a period of dormancy when the weather turns cold. It produces flowers the following spring.

Some of the first flowers I planted in the side bed were hollyhocks, given to me by my friend Judy, who is as knowledgeable and as patient a gardener as any I know. These hollyhocks behaved just as they were supposed to.

Judy had started the seeds in mid summer, given them proper protection and water, and the plants were six inches to a foot high by the fall when I planted them in full sun by the fence because I knew they would grow tall and need extra support. They bloomed beautifully the following June, reseeded, and bloomed again for several years.

The first surprise came with the second bloom. The flowers weren’t the same as the ones that had bloomed the year before. These hollyhocks, it seems, had cross pollinated, and had come up with a new look, attractive, but not what I’d expected.

Eventually, my garden got too crowded and the descendents of those first hollyhocks disappeared. I started more hollyhock seeds two years ago, following Judy’s example, and once they got big enough, I planted them against the fence where they’ve spent approximately a year and a half (a year longer than they were supposed to – surprise number two) doing their thing, producing lots of pretty round leaves and no flowers.

Finally, in the last few weeks, my hollyhocks have begun to bloom. Of course, I’ve lost the name of the variety, but the flowers are deep, deep purple, almost black, with bright yellow centers – strikingly beautiful. And they open, like the foxglove, a few at a time.

Hollyhocks come in a wide range of colors, but if there’s one you’re partial to, plant it alone, since you can expect them to cross pollinate. They grow three to six feet tall normally, but can grow even taller if they’re grown in rich, well drained soil with plenty of moisture.

Because it grows tall and because the leaves are susceptible to diseases, plant hollyhocks in the back of the bed with something to lean on. The double bloomers especially need support. Seed, either purchased or collected, can be planted any time between May and September. Young plants, grown from late season planting, need winter protection. The seed germinates in 2 to 3 weeks at 60 degrees.

I can’t attest to this, since I haven’t tried it, but I’ve read that after the hollyhocks finish blooming, I should cut them way back and they may bloom again in the fall.
Hollyhocks are wonderful, old fashioned flowers that remind us of impressionist paintings and grandmother’s garden. I found a letter recently that my grandmother wrote at least fifty years ago from her home in Stone Mountain, Georgia, back when Stone Mountain was still rural. She’d planted hollyhocks by the back door, she said, and promised they’d be blooming when my aunt came for her yearly visit.

Park Seed advertises Hollyhock seeds from varieties it promises will bloom the first summer if they’re planted in February. I’d love to hear if anyone has had success with these first year bloomers.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Of Hair and Hydrangeas

We women spend a lot of time fretting about our hair. Is it too gray, too short, too long, too thin, too straight, or, in my case too curly? Not curly really, just wavy. I would have made a good flapper, I think. I became a teenager in the 1960’s and pined for long, straight, silky hair like my best friend Sharon. Nowadays, I would be thrilled with course gray hair that didn’t need constant tending like some of my now best friends have. Sad to say, finger waves have not been around since I was a toddler, and my hair has gotten thinner, grayer, of course, but no less unruly. And so my battle against the forces of nature continues.

What the heck, you say, does this have to do with gardening? What it has to do with gardening is this: you always want what you don't have. People in Charleston want to grow delphiniums and peonies that last for more than a week, and people in Alaska want to grow dogwood trees taller than three feet. And what do people with blue hydrangeas want? Pink hydrangeas, of course, and, presumably, the opposite is also true.

I have to say I am less dissatisfied with the color of my hydrangeas than I am with the color of my hair. The good news is that changing either of them is pretty simple. All it takes is a little patience, a bag of lime or a bottle of Clairol. I don’t know what would happen if you put the Clairol on your hydrangeas, but DO NOT put the lime on your hair.

Hydrangeas left alone in our slightly acidic Aiken soil, tend to be blue, but if you are bored with blue, you can pretty easily make them pink.

If you kept going past my house, my street would make a turn and change names, and if you keep on going on that street, it would change names two more times until you come to the garden of Ann and Don Robinson.

The Robinsons have lived in their house for about forty-five years. It’s a ranch style house with almost an acre around it that they’ve filled with beautiful and interesting shrubbery, some of which came from the garden of Ann’s mother.

In front, in a bed that has grown considerably over the years, are hydrangea bushes. Each spring, over about three years, more out of curiosity than dissatisfaction, Don Robinson threw several handsful of lime, the same lime with which we dress our soils in late winter, around the bases of these blue hydrangeas, just to see what would happen, and, over the years the plants have grown pinker and pinker.

According to Michael Dirr’s book, “Hydrangeas for American Gardens,” hydrangea color is determined by the amount of aluminum in the soil solution which can be absorbed by the roots of the plant. The pH of the soil affects that process in a way that is more involved than most people care about knowing, but the bottom line is, if we want to make the hydrangeas deeper blue, we should drench the soil with an aluminum sulfate solution.
Dirr goes on to say that “excess phosphorous in the soil will also tie up the aluminum in insuluable precipitates, even in acid soils. Hydrangea macrophilla grown in pine bark medium, pH 5 to 6, are typically pink because, even though the acidity if high, but there is almost no aluminum present in the bark. To make them blue, aluminum sulfate is added to the surface of the container at a prescribed rate, usually 0.75 to 1.5 ounces evenly distributed on the surface of the 3 gallon container medium. Greenhouse growers also apply it as a drench at the rate of 2.4 ounces per gallon solution with 8 ounces applied as a drench per 6-inch container. Greenhouse treatments start at budbreak and continue every 2 weeks for three additional applications.”

There are other formulas, but whatever you use, you should be sure to water thoroughly after each application and too much is worse than too little, Dirr says. He also suggests that pink hydrangeas are beautiful and if the soil pH is too high, we might just want to enjoy them, but, if we really, really can’t live without pink hydrangeas, we can put lime on the soil, as Don Robinson did. Both lime and aluminum sulfate are available at garden centers.

I heard a lecturer say once that in our hot climate we could never expect to see the deep red hydrangeas that grow in cooler places.

The Robinsons have many other beautiful hydrangeas besides the pink and blue ones, including some huge oakleaf hydrangeas that have so far escaped my capabilities as a gardener.

There are healthy, red and yellow climbing Gloriosa Lilies. The Gloriosa has flowers with yellow petals flamed with red on the upper two thirds and turned up like a turban or an umbrella blown inside out. The stamen and pistil splay out from the center of the bloom.

Gloriosas are planted from tubers in the spring and will survive the winter if they are kept from freezing. Mulch them well in the fall and have them planted where they are protected. They appear to reproduce tubers easily and may be dug and divided in the fall after the plants have completely ripened their foliage, then kept indoors. Make sure that each severed piece has an eye, or growing point. You may also divide the tubers in the spring if you’ve left them in the ground. Be sure they have a tall trellis to climb. Gloriosas, like most lilies, make beautiful cut flowers.

The Robinsons also have a Smoke tree and, Don says, a “smoked tree.” It seems his Texas Star hibiscus leaves looked so much like marijuana leaves that once some marauding youngsters chopped off a branch and tried to smoke them. Wonder what that was like.

It was one of the hottest days of the year when I visited the Robinsons’ garden. Still it was as cool and peaceful as could be. You can see why they’ve stayed there for so long, and I’m guessing they’re not about to make any changes, except maybe to the color of their hydrangeas.

Monday, June 09, 2008


A face only a mother could love

The children’s book, “Arthur, for the Very First Time,” by Patricia MacLachlan, begins with a chapter titled “Moles.”

“What do moles look like?” asked Arthur.

“Ugly,” said his father.

Arthur wrote in his journal: Moles: ugly

“And they always come no matter what I do!” said his father angrily.

Ugly, but loyal.

The same day that I read that chapter to a class of second graders, I ran into a friend in line at Home Depot. “You should write about moles,” she said. “They’ve invaded my garden, killed a new fifteen dollar ginger plant from the roots – overnight. It was just like in ‘Caddy Shack’!”

A few days later, while I was taking Bell for a spin around the backyard, I encountered the mortally wounded, though quite recognizable, body of a mole.

It was fate. I asked my friend Linda Christine to give me the name of our local mole expert, and she sent me to Bill Hayes. Bill is a Master Gardener and plant lover, and he has a talk that his gives about moles and their fellow burrowers, voles.

Moles, he begins by saying, are misunderstood. They may not be loyal, as Arthur suggests, since they are solitary creatures who do not tolerate company; but they are not all together bad since they are not rodents, only eat insects and aerate the lawn. They are therefore beneficial to your garden, unless of course you want to grow something. Then they are pests and must by eliminated, according to Bill.

Moles can move fast, and when tunneling, will often surface, creating a volcano like mound of dirt. This differentiates the mole from the vole.

“The moles’ main food is the earthworm and they will follow the worm,” writes Bill. “That’s why most of the tunnels are at the surface during cool wet weather. The worms like to come up to the surface into soft wet grass. In times of drought we get fewer calls about moles. That’s usually when the surface temperatures are hot and harder than usual. Some homeowners contribute to the problem by over watering and creating the perfect mole/worm environment.”

That’s another reason not to overwater.

You can tell a mole is there if you see a raised tunnel that you hit with the lawnmower. The grass above the tunnel may be turning brown, and your feet may sink into the surface in several locations.

There are many old wives tales about how to get rid of moles, but most of them don’t work, says Bill.

The only way to get rid of moles is to “trap” them!

Trap is in quotation marks because you do not trap them with traps, you kill them, he says.

With names like “harpoon”, “scissors”, and “strangle”, the traps are pretty clear about their purpose.

There is a set of procedures or steps that you must follow to catch the mole.

1. Flatten all mole runs (tunnels). Use your feet or rent a roller. You must locate the primary run. The primary run will lead to the mole’s den or resting place. It is usually in soft soil around a flower bed.
2. Wait 24-48 hours
3. Return to your yard with enthusiasm and locate the active runs.
4. The primary run should be the longest with several shorter runs coming off of it.
5. Insert and set the trap in the primary run close to the den according to instructions.
6. Wait about 24 hours.
7. Exhume mole and discard.

You will now have free time to do other chores until the next mole moves in.

Kind of cute - if you like rodents.

Then there are voles. There are two kinds of voles around Aiken. The pine vole lives below ground and feeds on the roots of plants. The meadow vole (also known as a meadow mouse) lives above ground and eats succulent plants such as hostas, cannas, elephant ears and anything else that you treasure in your garden.

Unlike moles, the voles are sociable critters. They live in large colonies and can do severe damage to a garden or to large plants. Pine voles’ exit holes, resembling those of a snake, can be found around azaleas, camellias or other large plants that they are eating. They eat bulbs, tubers, seeds, and bark

Meadow voles are typically a little bigger than their cousins and live in pine straw piles and other vegetation and return to this vegetation after feeding. They eat grasses, sedges, seeds, grain, bark, and some insects. Both types of voles can be caught with mousetraps.

Bill suggests that it was probably a pine vole that got my friend’s ginger plant.

Meadow voles live in pine straw piles and other vegetation and return to this sanctuary after feeding. Both types of voles can be caught with mouse traps. Care should be taken to avoid poisons that can be eaten by cats or dogs.

Pine voles can be tricked into coming to the surface by creating an artificial tunnel above ground. Place a raised object like a box, pail or roofing shingles over the exit hole and put a few small pieces of apple under the cover. Put a weight on top of the cover to keep any light from entering. The vole will enter the space and eat the apple. After baiting the area for a few days, place a mouse trap in the space baited with apple. You should be able to trap several before they stop coming.

The easiest way for me to tell the difference between a mole and a vole is by the size of their feet. Voles have tiny feet proportional to their size, and they are actually kind of cute – if you like rodents. Moles have feet that look like the mole version of clown feet – without the shoes. I guess to dig that fast, you have to have special equipment.

For the record – I know there are moles and voles around my yard, since I’ve seen them. I haven’t noticed any damage, so I am willing to let them be, but if they are damaging your lawn and garden, you must choose whether or not you want to fight them. That will mean killing them using some kind of trap.

Once you have rid your lawn and garden of moles and voles and shrews (which can also do damage), or you have decided to coexist peacefully with them, you will have a chance to sit down and read. Try reading “Arthur, for the Very First Time” to your favorite elementary school student. It is a beautifully written book I nearly missed.