We have a few small grindstones in our garden but nothing like the ones used as hardscaping in the Herb Garden at the Cleveland Botanical Garden which we visited on our recent trip out east. A magnificent contrast to all the aromatic plants surrounding them.
I always pot up a container of annual herbs that I can put in a sunny spot. Often that spot has been on this old stump from a huge crabapple tree. Time — and digging critters — are making inroads into the stump, so this year I decided to put a couple of parsley plants directly into the crevices along with a little dirt. They've lasted a week and seem to be settling in. The usual pot of herbs (4 kinds of basil) is on the stump of the pine tree that came down in the winter of 2012/13.
Last week I visited Allen Centennial Gardens on the UW-Madison campus with Julie Siegel, a Chicago-area garden designer, blogger and friend. The garden is a teaching garden for the university but it is also free and open to the public. It was a perfect day for a visit with blue skies and few clouds, evidenced by this shot of the decorative details on the house once used by the Deans of the Ag School.
On the ground, however, it was a bit sunny for capturing the best photos. I took this shot of Geranium dalmaticum to remind me that mine is planted in the wrong spot in my garden judging by how happy it seems to be here.
Every time I visit ACG I discover something that is completely new to me — like this seedpod of Datura. I've seen this plant growing in many gardens but never at this season when it has these huge pods along with its last few flowers.
Ed Lyon, the director of ACG, always creates exciting mixes of edibles and ornamentals.
And he's an expert when it comes to color in the garden: whether it's flower and foliage combinations or art objects that he adds for emphasis. Every one of the following images offers ideas for home gardeners looking to do something a little different. (These tubes are painted PVC).
I particularly like blues that have a touch of gray or green as accent colors in the garden, and Ed must also judging by all the ways he employs it at ACG.
When I was at ACG at the end of June, I was taken with the clumps of peachy-pink hollyhocks that picked up the trim color of the Dean's house. This visit, it was the seedheads that matched the Cream City bricks.
I began growing herbs long before I had a garden. They were in pots on porches, tucked next to steps and back doors; anywhere there was a bit of room and a lot of sun. The minute I had a plot of my own, I planted chives; a pass-along from my garden mentor who also sat next to me at work, a lovely arrangement and one conducive to impromptu garden (and life) lessons.
I planted all the things that I never saw to buy at the grocery store but were critical recipe ingredients in the cookbooks I was reading at the time. Things like Lovage and Summer Savory and Perilla. Over the years, my taste in various herbs has waxed and waned, along with the amount of sun in my garden. But two herbs that I'd never be without are Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis, below) and Lemon Thyme (Thymus citriodorus variegata; the variegated variety is the prettiest, above)
These days, most of my herbs are planted next to paths for easy clipping and close to the house (when possible) so I can run out whatever the weather. But if I only had room for a few, Lemon Balm and Lemon Thyme would always top the list, because they're the flavoring in my favorite summer dessert: Double Lemon Tea Bread. This recipe is probably from the 1970s and is likely from House Beautiful magazine. It's pasted on an index card and stuck inside a plastic sleeve in my recipe box where I can easily find it, even if I can no longer recollect the source.
DOUBLE LEMON TEA BREAD
2 cups all purpose flour
1 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon grated lemon peel
1 tablespoon finely chopped lemon balm
1 tablespoon fine chopped lemon thyme
3/4 cup of milk
Juice of two lemons
Confectioners' (powdered) sugar
Mix flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl and set aside. Cream butter and gradually add in sugar. Then beat eggs in one at a time. Continue beating until light and fluffy. Beat in lemon peel and chopped herbs. Add flour mixture alternately with milk. Mix until batter is just blended.
Pour batter into greased 9 x 5 x 3 inch bread pan. Bake at 325 degrees about 50 minutes until a broom straw inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from pan and set on a cooling rack.
Add lemon juice, a few drops at time, to sifted confectioners' sugar until you have a thick but still pourable glaze. Pour the glaze over the still hot bread. Decorate with sprigs of Lemon Thyme. It's prettiest if the thyme is flowering. Mine had flowered once and been cutback (along with the Lemon Balm) and virtually had no flowers.
The flavor is very subtle and the bread has a fine texture and slices easily. Great with a glass of iced tea or lemonade on a hot afternoon — like today. You could easily increase the amount of lemon zest for a sharper flavor, but you don't want to increase the herbs so much that you wind up with green bread!
Lemon Balm can be pretty rampant but it smells wonderful as you pull it out to keep it under control! Mine also gets ratty looking by August so I cut it back to about 6 inches tall and it puts out a flush of new growth. Lemon Thyme likes perfect drainage and mine dies out every few years and I have to start again. The biggest, hardiest clump of it is growing in my traffic island bed where it gets lots of sun bounced off the concrete and also picks up lots of dirt and car exhaust fumes.
“By far the most exciting harvest of May is asparagus,” says Monty Don, one of the best contemporary British garden writers as well as a superb home gardener and one of my personal faves. He goes on to say, “Asparagus is one of those foods that are corrupted by being eaten out of season. The whole point of asparagus is that it has a time and a season.”
And the time for asparagus is now in my part of the world. One of the great virtues of asparagus — besides its great taste — is that it’s so easy to prepare. In fact, it’s one of those foods that is best when not buried under rich sauces or lost in complex dishes. If you're looking for some new asparagus ideas, here's a few from me and my shelf of faithful cookbooks.
How to chose and prep: Harold McGee did his asparagus homework and published the definitive word on thick vs thin and how to figure out where to break the ends off the stalks in this article in The New York Times. It finally ended the argument Mark and I have every spring about how and where to snap.
You can cook asparagus any number of different ways, all of them good. It’s more a question of taste than anything else. One pound of asparagus serves two to three people; though I’ve been known to eat the whole pound myself.
Boiled: In her book, “A Year in My Kitchen,” Skye Gyngell says “all vegetables should be cooked in really well salted water — salty as seawater” to keep their color vibrant. (Gyngell is the chef at the cafe at Petersham Nurseries near London, above). My own tip is to not add anything with lemon juice until serving time as it turns any bright green veggies a drab olive green.
Bring the pot of salted water to a full, rolling boil and drop in the asparagus. Bring the water back to boil and cook until tender, says Skye. This is usually only about a minute. Drain and serve immediately with any of the following:
Pretty plain: Drizzle the spears with a bit of olive oil and a sprinkling of chive flowers. The chance to use the pretty lavender flowers is reason enough to make room for chives in your garden.
Herb mayonnaise: Serve the asparagus with a lemon wedge and a good dollop of herb mayonnaise on the side. To about 2/3 cup of homemade mayonnaise (or your favorite store brand), add 2 to 3 Tablespoons of creme fraiche or yogurt, and one Tablespoon each of curly parsley, chives, tarragon and basil.
Citrus butter: Melt a stick of butter (4 ounces) and add the zest and juice of one lemon, lime or orange and pour over cooked asparagus.
Herb butter: Mix 2 to 3 Tablespoons of finely chopped herbs of your choice (my own favorite combination is Lemon Thyme, Lemon Balm and chives) with a squeeze of lemon juice and one stick of butter at room temperature. Shape the mixture into a log about one-inch in diameter. Wrap in tin foil and chill. Slice into discs about 1/4 thick and serve on top of hot asparagus. One woman I know uses a pastry tube and makes pretty little decorative shapes out of the soft butter and then chills them.
Pan steamed: I most often cook asparagus this way, something I learned in the early 1980s from “City Food,” one of Lee Bailey’s many fabulous cookbooks. Melt 1 Tablespoon butter in a deep skillet. Add washed and prepared asparagus and no other water than what is clinging to the stalks. Cover and steam over medium heat for five minutes. Shake pan occasionally. Check to be sure it’s not browning and cook another few minutes to taste.
Roasted: Last summer I discovered Ina Garton’s method of roasting asparagus in her book, “Barefoot Contessa Family Style” and it became an instant favorite. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. For two people, prepare a generous pound of asparagus and spread it in one layer on a sheet pan. Drizzle with 1 Tablespoon olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast until tender about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and return to the oven another minute until the cheese melts. Divine!
As Monty Don says, “Eating asparagus is good not only for the taste buds but also for the spirit: It makes you feel pampered and indulged.” So go ahead, indulge yourself. Alas, asparagus season won’t last nearly long enough for you to get really spoiled.
Parts of this column appeared in The Capital Times under my byline.
I don't know about your town, but one of the annual rites of Spring here in Madison are plant sales. I mean the ones sponsored by garden groups not commercial nurseries. They are a chance to buy local and sustainable in the best sense of those words. This is the week they kick off with two of the most prestigious:
Olbrich Botanical Gardens' Plant Sale with the Pros: This sale is known for three things: fabulous selection of tried and true plants mixed with cutting edge introductions; on-site advice from Olbrich staff and local experts, including help creating containers; and crummy weather. I always volunteer for this sale (come say hi on Sat. between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.). I usually work the shade perennials which are under a tent to protect them from the sun. More often than not, there is no sun; it's cold, windy and threatening rain! Those who've worked this sale know to dress in layers and make sure the top one is waterproof. Still, I'm hoping for the best! Friday, May 8, members only from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; open to the public from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Public sale continues on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. See Olbrich's Web site for more details.
Friends of the Arboretum Native Plant Sale: This is THE place to find native plants with over 100 species of grasses, woodland, prairie, and savanna plants, trees and shrubs on offer this Saturday under the big tents next to the UW-Madison Arboretum Visitor Center, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Click here for details. The UW-Madison Arboretum — one of our local treasures — is celebrating 75 years in 2009 with a number of special events. Since 1934, the Arb has been "restoring the land, advancing ecological restoration and fostering Aldo Leopold's land ethic," as the Web site puts it. It's also a great place for a walk in the Spring.
Jeff Epping, the Director of Horticulture at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, wears his "Pro" apron and conducts a sale at a past Olbrich plant sale.
Westside Garden Club: I love this sale and never miss it. They sell "choice perennials, specialty annuals and herbs," as a recent email from one of the members put it. Many of these plants are from member gardens so you know they will grow here. They tend to be nice size offerings at reasonable prices. This sale is also in the gardens and driveway of a lovely house (3918 Nakoma Rd., just west of Thoreau School) in one of Madison's older neighborhoods, so a visit is always a treat because of the setting. The sale is Friday, May 8 from 8 a.m to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. LIke most local clubs, the proceeds of the sale are donated to garden related civic organizations and projects.
I checked my garden journal to see what I bought last year at the Westside sale and discovered I spent $48 (including $6 on a pair of gloves that looked interesting). I had forgotten what I bought so the list refreshed my memory and I can tell you everything is up and looking good. I bought a number of different kinds of primroses and they have come up in big, healthy clumps — very exciting. I'm guessing they may be in flower by the time the sale rolls around this weekend.
Shorewood Hills Garden Club Annual Cocoa Mulch and Plant Sale: Saturday, May 9 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Shorewood Village Hall, 810 Shorewood Blvd. Call 238-4860 or 236-9374 for more information. A good group and their event should prove the same.
Wisconsin Hardy Plant Society Plant Sale: Saturday, May 16 from 9 a.m. to noon at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station, 8502 Mineral Point Rd. This is a stellar sale! The plants come from members' gardens, as is the case with many club sales. But this group includes some incredible gardeners and thus the sale always includes some unusual plants but you have to get there early.
The last couple of years I've bought small Korean maples (Acer pseudosieboldiana) for about $10-12. Even small, they make an immediate statement in the garden. Already this spring, the trees I purchased at last year's sale have started to put on growth. How can you beat that price for a tree that has dramatic fall color, disease resistance, hardiness and small stature perfect for urban gardens?
Woke to the sound of thunder Saturday morning, and before I'd even managed to make a pot of coffee, the sky let loose with a cloudburst. That put an end to my plan to hit the outdoor Westside Farmers Market in my neighborhood. Instead I watched it pour and sent Mark out to capture the garden between showers.
A week ago Saturday found me on the Capitol Square at the opening moments of the first Dane County Farmer's Market of the season. It is the big planet around which all the other regional farmers markets orbit. I went looking for herbs since I am not a seed-starting kind of girl. Came home with a beautiful variegated pineapple mint, two plants of large-leaved Genovese basil (perfect for pesto), one Thai basil, one small-leaved spicy basil (it grows like a mini boxwood) and one of the basils with decorative reddish-purple leaves. And the basics: curly parsley, Italian flat-leaf parsley and cilantro.
Could not find the Tiger Eye violas that I went in search of, but came home with these "Midnight Sun" charmers instead (in the back corner of the basket). Also got some smaller Sorbet strain in similar tones, called "Babyface Ruby and Gold" (front basket corner). I'm thinking about planting them near some Gold-Laced Black Primulas to contrast the informality of the pansies with the structured form of the primroses, linked by the similarity of color.
But first it has to stop raining. The poor pansies and herbs have been on the deck all week waiting for the rain to stop and the ground to dry out a bit. That had just about happened when the rain cycle began again Saturday morning. The evening brought thunder, lightening and hail; my rain gauge showed two inches by Sunday morning. We're in the midst of a swirling system of storms that are expected to last through Monday night. At the same time, the rain and the warmer temps have the garden greening and growing at an amazing rate. So, I'm enjoying the progress even if I can't get outdoors to plant.