November 27, 2013

Dinner Menu

Here is what is on the menu for Thanksgiving in my garden:

Winterberries (Ilex verticillata 'Red Sprite')
Everyone says the birds like these, but in my garden it is the deer who strip the berries off before I can enjoy seeing their festive red against the snow. They'll be gone by Christmas, but they make a fine Thanksgiving treat right now.

Chokeberries (Aronia arbutifolia 'Brilliantissima')
These are on offer for Thanksgiving, but nobody really likes them. The birds will not touch them until late winter, either because there is nothing else left then, or because it takes that long for these fruits to mellow and become tasty. They are not a favorite but they are on the menu. 

Viburnum berries (Viburnum prunifolium)
There are only a few of these navy blue fruits. This young viburnum only had a few flowers last spring, the first year it bloomed. This picture was taken in late October when the leaves were still on. Now, with all the leaves down, there are actually only a few raisin-like berries left, so this will be a rare Thanksgiving treat for just a few birds.

Holly berries (Ilex x meserveae hybrid 'Blue Princess')
Several years ago I planted four blue holly shrubs and they were supposed to be a mix of male and female. But all four have dense crops of red berries, so all four are females. They are being pollinated by another type of holly nearby, either the winterberries in my garden, which seems unlikely, or some other holly in the neighborhood. Thanksgiving is a family holiday, so we won't fuss about paternity right now. 

American holly berries (Ilex opaca)
This is a newly planted female holly tree, and I am thrilled to see berries. I did plant a companion male Ilex opaca nearby, but the little sapling had just three or flour blooms this June. But that was enough. This Thanksgiving a small quantity of American holly berries are on the menu.

Dogwood fruit (Cornus florida)
They look yummy and there are plenty for this holiday. This dogwood is a pink flowering variety and it has stunning fall color that starts out mahogany purple and becomes fiery red, so it's a visual treat in many seasons. The leaves are down now, but there are still some berries left for Thanksgiving.

Eastern Red Cedar berries (Juniperus virginiana)
The tiny blue fruits are so pretty, and quite blue when photographed in shade. The junipers grow at the far end of the meadow, out back where I can't see them easily, so I don't know if cedar waxwings have found them. I have not seen waxwings, but that doesn't mean they haven't been there. I hope so. They are invited guests for Thanksgiving.

Bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica)
I did not realize bayberry is dioecious, like hollies. You need a male to pollinate the female shrub to set fruit. Apparently my bayberry is a male, because there have never been any waxy, aromatic gray berries. Alas. But I make up for it with another winterberry holly with delicious red berries right next to it. No one will starve. Although there will be no traditional handmade bayberry candles to decorate the Thanksgiving table.

No one will starve indeed. In addition to all the juicy berries, there are so many seedheads, with plenty of good things to eat on the black eyed Susans and many other perennials still standing. 

Rose hips are plump and red, especially the hips on the redleaf rose, Rosa glauca, which are huge. 

Cotoneaster has red berries and deep purple foliage. It is down at ground level, tucked in below a big spruce that offers protection for skittish feeders.

Two corneliancherry trees (Cornus mas) grow in my garden, but they are young and have not fruited yet. They are supposed to have big red berries that make a great jam, and I am eagerly waiting for that some year. 

And I have three young native persimmons (Diospyros virginiana), which will someday produce orange globes that only a hard freeze will make edible. How I long to see those some year.

That would be excessive, wouldn't it? Already I have too much on the menu for a holiday feast for birds and rodents and deer and people. 

How grateful I am for the utter abundance of my garden and the grace in my life.

November 23, 2013

Burnt Sugar

I learned something new recently. I learned katsura trees are aromatic even after all their leaves are down.
In early November I took a walk around the neighborhood one morning, and suddenly caught the unmistakable sweet smell of katsura trees, Cercidiphyllum japonicum.

In autumn they smell of vanilla or burnt sugar. It reminds me of angel food cake baking, or of being at a country fair in autumn, with cotton candy machines spinning out fluffy cones of stickiness that sweeten the air.

There was a katsura tree on the street next to us, and then two at the top of another street. The amazing thing was that in the early part of November, the leaves were all down. I did not even notice that there were katsuras nearby until I caught that fragrance, then looked around, and there I was, standing right near a bare and leafless tree.

I'm starting to be able to tell a katsura from the furrowed bark and stiff, twiggy shape, although it's hard without any heart shaped leaves to check. But the caramel scent was so unmistakable!

There were dried brown leaves at the foot of each tree. No leaves remained on the branches. Can it be that the aroma lingers after the leaves have fallen? Wow.

I thought it was the coloring of the leaves in fall that produced the sweet fragrance. But all three of the trees I saw on my walk were bare. They had lost all their leaves and what laid at the base of the trunks were just a few dried remnants, not a big pile of freshly fallen leaves.

The few dried leaves on the ground did not smell like anything; it was the air that smelled.

Jim didn't smell the fragrance at all, although he knows what I am talking about since he did get the wafting scent from a whole stand of katsuras in the parking lot at Cornell Plantations when we were there in October 2012.

A mature katsura can be a huge spreading thing. Young ones, like the trees I saw on my walk, are stiffly pyramidal, usually branched low to the ground, and kind of twiggy.  Once the scent alerted me, I could tell by the shape what the tree was, even though it had no leaves.
Young katsura at Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass.
Young katsura at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass.
Mature katsura at Arnold Arboretum at Harvard.

Naturally, I have a katsura tree in my yard, planted for its shade (eventually), its pretty redbud-like leaves and its orange fall color. And of course for the promise of caramels in autumn. But my newly installed tree had no scent this year. It was just put in this September, so as a new transplant it is adjusting.

But how I want to smell that burnt sugar aroma while sitting on the porch some day.

It's November now and time to think of pumpkin pies and stuffing and turkeys. But for some reason I am dreaming of angel food cake. There is a mix in the pantry. I might ask Jim to make one, just so I can smell it baking.

Or I might go take a walk in the neighborhood for the same hint of burnt sugar with far fewer calories.

November 18, 2013

Liquid Gold

At this time of year the first rays of sun in the morning light up the magnolia tree outside the bedroom window as if the sun was pouring liquid gold on the branches. It happens just as I wake each morning, and it lasts about half an hour.

At first the sky lightens outside, and I can see a sunny day is ahead. I lie in bed watching the air brighten behind the still dark leaves of the sweetbay magnolia.

Then, all at once, a few leaves on one branch turn gold. They are not the topmost leaves. These few leaves part way down are gilded, lit from below.

Then, happy with the result, the sun drips golden light all down the single branch it has chosen.

Finally, after about 15 minutes, the entire top of the magnolia is bright, creating a stained glass window in the sunshine, and I know it is time to get up.

I enjoy the sweet bay magnolia outside the window in all seasons, but this only happens in November. The sun is at just the right angle to pour liquid gold down the branches at the exact time that I wake up.

This year the sweetbay magnolia has some nice fall color, which adds to the bright golden stained glass effect in morning. Magnolia virginiana doesn't always color, but this autumn the leaves are a rich butterscotch, brown and gold, with a few green leaves for contrast.
I planted this tree in 2008, and it was a little thing in summer 2009 as the first photo shows. In 2013 it had grown over the top edge of the roof.
Magnolia virginiana in 2009
Five years later, in 2013
It has an open and loose form, which I like in front of the window. It catches light at all times of day. Sweetbay magnolia leaves have silvery undersides and they glitter when a summer breeze moves them.

It flowers in early summer with creamy buds that open clear white. The leaves stay on through winter, usually green, but this year I am hoping the rich mix of butterscotch persists.

The flowers are supposed to have a lemony scent when they open in June, but to my disappointment, my tree does not. That's okay. It makes up for it in November. As the darkest time of year approaches, this pretty tree opens the day dripping in gold sunshine.


November 14, 2013


We visited the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina in mid September. Several people commented they were eager to see the Biltmore, but were put off by the price. They asked if it was really worth it.

Well, yes and no. In my opinion.

The tickets were $59, more if you wanted the $17 audio tour of the house. Online advance purchase brought the price down to $44 without an audio tour.

If you are going because you want to see the house, I think that price is steep. It is a 33 room period-era showplace, operated as a hotel for the Vanderbilts and their endless guests. To me it seems overdecorated in heavy Victorian style, designed to make you gawk at what money could buy in the 1890s.

It is most impressive, but you have to be a real fan of this kind of architecture to get $60+ worth of enjoyment out of an hour and a half tour.

Or you have to be a real fan of the Victorian era, or lifestyle excesses to get a kick out of seeing it at those prices.

Many visitors seemed less interested in the history of the Vanderbilts and more into whether Anderson Cooper ever lived here (he didn't, but with his mom, Gloria Vanderbilt, he did visit some of the rooms that were still available just to the family when he was young.)

Parking is free, shuttles from the lot to the house are free, restrooms and cafe food are convenient, and the whole enterprise is well run, clean and efficient. If you don't want to buy the $17 tape recorder tour, there are docents in many rooms and they were very informative.

Now, on to the gardens. Were those worth it?

I'm a gardener and I have studied Frederick Law Olmsted's career, and so I say yes.

There was much to see and appreciate, including the eye candy kinds of showy gardens -- pergola walks, a walled perennial garden, a rose garden, a tropical conservatory. There were fields of mums, blocks of annuals, all heavily maintained and in pristine condition for late in the season.

But if you are only interested in flowers and European-style gardens, the price is still steep -- even if you justify it at $30, half the ticket price (assuming half the cost is for the house tour, half for walking the gardens).

I thought the real value was seeing the designed landscape beyond the formal gardens around the mansion. This was Frederick Law Olmsted's last commission at the end of his life, and he had not just hundreds of acres to design, but hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and mountain to work with.

Originally the Vanderbilts owned 125,000 acres. This view is what you see from the house. The estate is much smaller now, but still vast.

Olmsted insisted that the forest be preserved, and not cleared out to make sweeping open lawns. While my companions (my sister and my husband on this trip) saw only trees and meadows and a pond, I recognized that what Olmsted built to look so natural was completely manmade.

He expanded a millpond to become a lake (where scenes from Last of the Mohicans were filmed. I had trouble imagining that, but ok). He cleared land for farming on the estate, and leveled hills and built paths.

He built dips in the terrain, sheltered by trees that only now, 100 years on, are mature and stately. It all looks natural, like he didn't do anything, but it is a highly designed space. Money, of course, was no object.

The bridges and man made structures are reminiscent of Central Park, but more rustic.

For a little more on Olmsted's impact on Biltmore click here.

For a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted click here.

I read about his life in the biography "Genius of Place" and was amazed. He was uneducated, barely getting any kind of elementary tutoring as a youth. He never attended a college.

He was not a landscape architect. He was first an experimental farmer, then a reporter for the NY Times writing about slavery in the south, a gold miner in California, the commissioner of the Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, and several other things. He fell into creating Central Park sort of by accident, late in life, and then went on to do other park commissions.

He is a native son to us -- Olmsted was born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, and is buried here.

Bottom line, in this blogger's opinion: a visit to Biltmore is too expensive for the ornate house and showy gardens. You can see those in Europe and you can see those in Newport, Rhode Island or New York.

But the evidence of Frederick Law Olmsted's genius shaping the geography in subtle and barely noticeable ways is well worth it if you know what to look for.

Read the biography before you go.

November 8, 2013


Oh my god, blood all over the walk, wheel tracks leading away. Did Jim fall off the John Deere lawnmower and then get run over?

But no, there he was, coming down the path, ready to do chores, no sign of mishap or injury. Hey.

I was pretty upset when I saw those pools of blood. This part of the walkway is right outside the bedroom window, and if some creature had some kind of mishap, it was awfully near the house. No sign of feathers or fur, though. No screeching sounds the night before.

Just this evidence of foul play in the morning. And it was still wet. There is a huge coyote who visits our neighbor's yard, and we have bobcats who hunt near our meadow. What could have happened?

I went to investigate.

But wait. As I stood right over the evidence, the walk was clear -- there was only a dribble of dampness along the stones.

I backed up and once again the stones were blood soaked. Huh?  I looked up.

There, in the distance was the culprit. The red maple, blazing in the sun, had cast a blood red reflection onto a little patch of wetness in the shade.

The tracks in the grass were my own, from the garden cart. The dampness was from a little bit of spilled hose water. The sight of carnage outside my window was nothing more than autumn sunlight and fall foliage playing tricks.

I have to tell you, it really scared me.

November 4, 2013

As Planned

October left us, November arrived, and overnight, it seems, the Norway maples turned butter yellow, the silver maples turned lemony and the red maple in the back yard went up in flames.

I planned the walkway around the side of the house to feature the red maple at this time of year. It's the focal point as you round the walk, although honestly you can't miss it from anywhere in the yard, inside the house, or half a mile up the street.

I even planned it so there would be an allee effect, with the maple framed in the distance as you walk the short path from the driveway to the back of the house.

A multi colored fothergilla is at the start of the walk, and the maple is at the end. It works the way I planned.

The fothergilla is enough to make you stop before you even start down the allee.

I also planned a pop of flame red color to anchor the far right front corner of our lot, where I put in a red oak last year, but it is nowhere near as big as the maple.

And yet this skinny red oak is not bothered by its wispy stature. It puts out a confident blast of red, even though it is eight feet tall and has the girth of a drinking straw.

It will some day have an effect like the maple, but I'm tickled that at this young stage it is so blatantly red in fall.

When I go back inside the house the flaming red fire of the maple lights up the kitchen window. A red glow reflects off the table, the floors, the counter.

Even in the bedroom, where a leafy green magnolia by the window screens the view, there is no escaping the fire outside. Red light pools on the dresser top.

The autumn sky at sunset also reflects the riot of color below, but softens the golds and reds to peachy rose. I couldn't plan anything this beautiful.