December 29, 2010

Heirloom Vegetables -a Better Choice? Yes, and No

My Heirloom seed order has already arrived from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. The packaging is spectacular, as usual. 
Seed packets don't get more perfect than this. 

Here we are in late December, and the seed catalogs are filling my mailbox, It's been interesting to watch how popular the craze to crow heirloom varieties of vegetables from seed has become. But what really are the benefits of growing heirloom varieties? This is not a discussion about non GMO, or Monsanto Alfalfa, or Corn, nor is this a rant about Organic vs conventional methods, this is just some thoughts of mine about why I am moved to grow heirloom seeds, and, is my response purely emotional? Are my reasons the 'right' ones? Or are they just for nostalgia's sake? There is something cool about growing a squash that Ben Franklin grew, but is it really any more nutritious? Am I saving the planet? Basically, is it worth it  or am I just following a trend because it makes me appear as if I am more 'sustainable' (even though I drive a SUV to Whole Foods)?

I care deeply about the environment, but at the same time, I admit that I am a little selfish ( I mean, I heat a glass greenhouse with propane all winter long, just to grow rare bulbs that were most likely illegally collected in South Africa). Am I supposed to feel good about this? OK, I do recycle my vegi trimmings in soup, but I know that I am not saving the world. But we all do little things that make us feel better about our excesses, so, in this New Year, I am thinking about the little things that I do, and if, they are actually helping me, or the planet for that matter.
The Asian heirloom cucumbers are impressive in the Baker Creek Catalog, and my next order has a long list of these since I feel they will sell out early.

Regardless if there are indeed real dangers in the progressive practices of companies like Monsanto  or out government, what should you believe about the trend to grow heirloom vegetables over conventional ones? Are they really any better than new and improved varieties that are disease resistant, and, do they really taste any better? Are they a better health option? Basically, are they worth growing?

First of all, what are heirloom vegetables? 

The term “heirloom” generally refers to plant varieties passed down by families from year to year, thereby preserving particular characteristics. Simple, right? Well, yes. It is true that heirloom vegetables are trendy now, if not critical for those who are conscious about the health of our planet and our species, theoretically. Heirloom vegetables don’t always taste better. Heirloom tomatoes certainly do, but not all heirloom vegetables do, in fact, many taste worse, especially corn and squashes that have a lower sugar content. The real benefits appear to be in that some have a genetic 'purity', (which confuses me because most are mutations of wild plants) but some are not actually proved to have any more nutrition, many new varieties are bred to be more nutritious. 

December 28, 2010

First Snow Storm of the Season

Our first substantial snow of the season arrived yesterday, but it never measured up to what was promised ( nearly 24" or more and blizzard warnings), we only recieved 6 or 7 inches but it was enough to make the landscape feel a bit more seasonal. Here, a yellow-needled pine glows against the white new fallen snow.
View of the deck with potted shrubs and alpine troughs all covered with snow.
In the greenhouse, the first Clivia is blooming. The first is this seedling of 'Moondrops' that we brought back from Japan ten years ago. It's one of my favorite inter-specific crosses, and it will change color over time as the flowers age. At this stage, they are very green and peach.
Other clivia species are just budding. This Clivia X 'Christmas Candoll'  is just setting bud, with almost 7 buds emerging. This old plant is from seed that I purchased from Thompson & Morgan in the late 1980's, and it has small red blossoms that are pendulous.

Outside again, the potted shrub look nicer in the snow than they did a week ago, so I thought that I would show them again.
Coral Bark Maple
In the greenhouse, the sun is warm, which reminds me that the days are at least starting to get longer even though you can't notice it. With near hurricane force winds and blizzard conditions two nights ago, I was concerned about the glass since trees surround the greenhouse, and the temperatures were cold, at around 10 degrees F. The single pane glass is fragile, but inside, all seemed well. Above, one of the sand bulb beds , the large leaved plant show how big the foliage on the the Brunsvigia bosmaniae that bloomed in September has become. It enjoys all the sun it can get.

In the warm sun, all one can smell is the scent of almond pudding, thanks to a large Osmanthus fragrans which is in bloom. I planted it into the ground, so that it can grow into a large tree, and the fragrance is sublime. There is nothing like walking into a greenhouse in the depths of winter, to feel the warm sunshine and the fragrant plants, and this, one of the most fragrant at this time of year.

December 25, 2010


Here's wishing each of my readers, a very Merry Christmas! 
Sharing some images from the last 24 hours at our home.
Above, an amazing Emu egg I received in our family joke-gift grab. Thanks to my niece Lindsey, this was my favorite gift. Naturally, Joe wants to hatch it.
On overcast days like today, the scarlet red branches of the Coral Bark Maple, seem almost artificial set against a dull, winter landscape.  This shrub is planted in a frost proof fiberglass container on our deck, and it truly looks good every day of the year.

In the kitchen display window over the sink, I was stumped on what to bring in from the greenhouse for a display this year since camellia and jasmine become repetitive, but then I spotted some of the large bonsai spending the winter on the cold back porch, and I had an idea. Here, a bonsai trained Metasequoia trained by our friend bonsai expert Glen Lord of Bonsai West ( in Littleton MA) is set into a wooden tray which I covered with moss from our woodland. Glen is probably freaking out now that he knows that I brought this into the house while dormant, but, it's only for a day, and this window is very cold. Completely natural decorations are just as beautiful as artificial ones, and this brought lots of comments from out guests, as it was lit at night, bringing the outdoors, in, for a day. 
I was tempted to add fake snow, but I didn't. The bonsai pot it hidden under sheets of moss and rocks that I brought indoors. The entire display is set into a dark, wooded serving tray.

My vintage bottle brush tree collections with bamboo ( Sasa vietchii) outside.
Our Indian Runner ducks await their Christmas dinner  on the back lawn. You can see their duckling pictures on postings from last may. They have stopped laying eggs on these shortest days of the year.

Mercury Glass Christmas tree toppers on the mantlepiece display.
Nothing says Christmas like an Ikea squeeky rat.

paperwhite narcissus and Ilex berries

I know, it looks a little bit too much like a Pottery Barn catalog shot, but believe me, ask anyone who has visited our home, if I moved the camera one foot to the right, we could be on hoarders! But the house did look nice for our dinner thanks to some last-minute cleaning and hiding of junk. The best part of all - I have next week off from work! Yay! Maybe I can finish my magazine, but I will have to change the holiday pages to just winter pages. Never enough time to do all of the projects I want to.

December 23, 2010

My Big Fat Lithuanian Christmas

My sister has the knack on curling the edge on the dumplings.
 Salmon filets ( wild caught) await prep in the kitchen. This one will become gravlax, cured in salt, sugar and dill.
Fergus keeps watch over the Virtiniai process, ensuring that no flour will hit the floor.

Beets, beets, and more beets. A hot scarlet beet soup is the first course in my family's Christmas Eve Kucios dinner.

The Virtiniai are filled with a mixture of Pressed farmers cheese, cottage cheese and egg. They are then boiled, and served in melted butter. Healthy in So many ways!

Since fish is often served in the traditional Kucios meal, we serve Salmon filets is smoked, the other one I am making into Gravlax ( which of course, is NOT Lithuanian), and then we are also cooking a few filets of beef since hey, we are only human.

Having been raised in an ethnic family in a Lithuanian/American home, my memories of the Christmas season includes revolves around a strong connections with food, and now that I think about it, much of that food comes from plants. The Lithuanian diet, like much of the Baltic States is built on a solid foundation of cabbage, and there is no shortage of cabbage in our menu, but the Lithuanians celebrate Christmas in a unique way, strangely ( or not so strange) the Christmas eve dinner called Kucios, ( Kooch-us) evolved from a pagan celebration based around the winter solstice and the was only changed when Christianity reached the country which required that the holiday feast simply be moved up a few days.

Dried boletus mushrooms from Russia are added to the beet soup.

The use of evergreens as decorations on festive occasions is a custom that is older than Christianity in Lithuania. Especially in the colder climates of northern Europe, where during winter all plants and trees except for fir and pine die back or seem to go into a deep sleep, evergreens held a special place in the imaginations of the people. Because they were green all year, they were believed to have magical powers of life and fertility.

Lithuanian Christmas customs and traditions reflect the rural lifestyle of most Lithuanians of that time. Lithuanians lived on small family farms, grew their own crops, raised their own livestock. What they did, what they ate, etc., was intimately tied to the cycle of the seasons and to the products of their own labor. It is also well to remember that Lithuania is situated in northern Europe and during Christmas is in a grip of a cold winter. The ground is covered with snow, lakes and rivers are frozen. All nature seems to be in a deep sleep except for the evergreen fir and pine trees. There are no fresh flowers, no fresh fruit, no fresh vegetables.

My personal celebration dates back generations, and although I can remember my  late mother, who hosted  a Kucius every Christmas eve in the house that I now live in, since the 1960's, she lived here starting in 1940. before that,  my paternal Grandmother hosted the same dinner every Christmas eve. Since my father still lives with us at nearly 97, he still expects the same meal which we so enjoy. The Kucius dinner includes 12 courses, mainly based around fish, herring taking the lead,  but yes, many plants. The scent of freshly grated Horseradish, dill, sugar or storage beets, poppyseed pastry, sauerkraut dried boletus mushrooms and potatoes with onions all adds up to a Lithuanian meal.

Traditionally the menu has no dairy, eggs, or cheese, but most modern families have introduced many Lithuanian favorites that focus on cheese and butter, ( such as our family favorite, the cheese filled Lithuanian dumpling known as Virtiniai. Today, everyone in my family waits for this dish every year,  so much so, that we joke about how many we are going to make, and who is making them even counting them to make sure that no one stole any before Christmas. In many ways, I associate my upbringing to be very similar to the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, except we had to replace the work GREEK with Lithuanian.

The Gravlax being weighted with river rocks. It will be ready in 2 days.

Joe will go out to the duck house to get straw for the dining table, since traditionally, straw is spread on the table, ( symbolic of Jesus in the manger) but since we are not religious, we like the connection Kucios has with the pagan ceremony around the shortest day of the year, when Lithuanians believed that the animals could speak on the evening of the shortest day ( that's all we need! It sure would be noisy around here!). Like many northern European countrys, fir branches and candles along with birch branches and logs and moss brought the outdoors, in. An extra plate is set for any family member who was unable to come ( or who has passed away), and a plate of christmas wafers is placed in the center. Dinner starts early, when the stars in the sky appear. And then, the most traditional drink of all, the Manhattans begin to flow in the kitchen!
Happy Holidays everyone.

December 21, 2010

Candy Cane Oxalis

OXALIS VERSICOLOR - the Candy Cane Oxalis

A rather common ( in plant collector terms) Oxalis species in bloom during the Holiday season is Oxalis versicolor, commonly known as the Candycane Oxalis, for obvious reasons. One of the 'bulbous' South African Oxalis species, this is an easy to grow choice for many, and it is also one of the easiest to obtain, often being carried by the larger Dutch bulb sites in the autumn.

The flower petals are edged in red, which does not show when the blossom is open, unless you look at the back of the blossom, but when the buds are closed in the evening, or in cool weather, they show a swirled pattern of red and white which is very attractive. When cultivated as a summer grower in warmer climates, or under lights, the foliage will from  nice, tight mound, but in weaker winter light, northern grown winter blooming specimens will be more lax in habit.

This is bulb that should be planted thickly, for buying one or three will not produce a nice effect. The best results come from dozens of bulbs, planted shoulder to shoulder in a pot ( which can break your bank account at $8.00 a bulb, but don't worry, they will help you- start with five or six bulbs, and let them divide; you will end up with  hundred bulbs in a couple of years).

I have found that this is one of those Oxalis species that love moisture when in growth, and although many experts may advise against it, I let my pots sit in water for a few weeks at a time just before blooming, I then get hundreds of flowers. Naturally, one cannot keep plants in foot-bath of water, because the roots can rot without enough air, so I allow my plants to dry out ever few weeks, too. I assume the these plants may bloom in seeps or stream sides in the wild, since many Oxalis that are bulbous in winter rainfall areas are able to survive if not thrive in temporarily flooded conditions that they experience in nature. Just be sure to provide them with a dry period for the summer, where no water at all is applied, I place my pots on a high bench in the dry summer greenhouse when they go dormant in June. Watering starts again in September, when the first cool nights begin to trigger growth, around Labor day, or September 1st.

December 19, 2010



As we enter the Holiday season, and the winter solstice, the rare fruits of winter arrive in the markets that were common winter fruits in Asia. Persimmons. Pomegranates and citrus of all types remind us that indeed, there is another world beyond ours. In my greenhouse, I am reminded daily of what people grow and eat in China and the Southern Hemisphere,  for under the protection of cold glass,  many types of Pomegranates and small citrus ripen.  Green Pomegranates from Iran, Persimmon trees bear fruit and citrons and Lemons bear fruit for candy and tea.
Mixed citrus in the December greenhouse.

 Meyer Lemons, growing in a large terra cotta pot are the tastiest winter harvest fruit we have. 

One of my favorite harvests in the winter months are Meyer Lemons, which blossoms for me in July, but bear fruit for the entire winter, starting in November. My trees are still small, but even at their small stature, I can get around 60 fragrant lemons, enough for tea and for my favorite use – in a spritzer made with mineral water and pomegranate juice (and sometimes a dash of Pims, Campari.
 Indian or Hong Kong Kumquats or Fortunella hindsii, are the tiniest citrus fruit one can grow. They are nearly the size of a pea and contain up to three full sized seeds.

But by far, my favorite citrus  to grow are the Kumquat’s (Fortunella sp.), because they do very well in the cold greenhouse conditions I have. I live near Logee’s Greenhouses whichis 20 minutes away from us in Connecticut, where they have a large, ancient tree that is loaded with fruit every winter (as well as Fuyu Persimmons!).

First, the name. People may giggle when one say’s Kumquat, but the English name is derived from the Cantonese pronounciation which sounds very much like gam gwat ( meaning golden orange). In Mandarin, a similar sounding name translates literally as large tangerine orange.  For many people and cultures, Kumquats are not unusual at all. This Holiday season pick some up, not for decoration, but to eat. Later, I’ll tell you how.

You may think that it would be easy to obtain a Kumquat plant, since the fruit is so seedy, one can easilly assume that all one must do is to plant a seed.Yes,  it is fun to grow citrus from seed, it reminds many of us of childhood experiments with grapefruits and oranges, but your results will be handicapped since most citrus will grow fine foliage plants from seed, few will ever bloom or bear fruit. Even if a kumquat grown from seed blossoms, the genus is challenging to grow well since seed grown plants frequently have problems forming decent root growth, they are grafted onto more root-aggressive species. The truth is that most citrus that are seed grown are at least 15 years away from opening their first blossom, so if you are interested in purchasing a kumquat that will bear fruit, it must be grafted. Grafted plants ensure that you will get loads of blossoms on a small plant, and, it ensures that you will get a proper named variety.

Since most commercial Kumquat’s are grafted onto the rootstock of Poncirus trifoliata, I was surprised to read that in China, some growers graft named varieties onto the species I have, F. hindsii, so maybe I can grow some from seed. That said,  I have to assume it too is best grafted,  since the Logee’s plant I have has clearly been grafted, and logic dictates that a cutting from a blooming sized tree that has been grafted, will guarantee flowers and fruit at a small size. 

I love the flavor of Kumquat’s, which are best eaten by popping an entire fruit, skin, seeds and all, into your mouth for an exciting sour and sweet experience. Something I never fully appreciated until one January while visiting California, Joe Nuccio took me out back to a fruit laden Kumquat tree at their Camellia nursery in Pasadena, and handed me some fruit straight from the tree, warm from the winter sun, I popped the fruit into my mouth and was blown away by the flavor of the skin, which tasted like orange blossom oil, while being both tangy and sweet with just enough bitterness. I have tasted nothing like it since.

Our supermarkets near Boston carry baskets of hybrid Kumquats around the Holidays, but few people buy them for anything other than decoration, but I urge you to try the simple Kumquat as an edible fruit. Let them come to room temperature, and try biting into it. It is exciting, since it is natural to feel odd about biting into a whole citrus…it doesn’t come close to my California experience, but if the fruit is fresh, it can come close.

The blossoms on Kumquats appear in summer, and are as fragrant as orange blossoms. Just watch out for the thorns when leaning in for a sniff.

Kumquats are native to China, and they were introduced to the west in 1846 by British plant explorer Robert Fortune. Included in the genus Citrus until 1915 when plant taxonomists reclassified them into their own genus Fortunella (after Robert Fortune).  In the US, Florida citrus growers started growing Kumquats in the lat 1800’s when the Nagami or Oval Kumquat was introduced from Japan, where the fruit was popular. There are five species of Fortunella (Fortunella hindsii, The Marumi Kumquat (Fortunella japonica), The Nagami Kumquat (Fortunella margarita) and the Meiwa Kumquat (Fortunella crassifolia.), the Malayan Kumquat (Fortunella polyandra), and the Jiangsu Kumquat (Fortunella obovata). Some sources like Fortunella as being synonymous with Citrus sp.

December 14, 2010


I've been obsessed lately with Christmas Cactus, or what florists now call Zygocactus ( a name introduced a few years ago by the trade to help market these plants which are still properly known in botanical Latin as Schlumbergera. The genus Schlumbergera has been cultivated by man for over 200 years, with the first species being discovered in 1809 and introduced to England. By the turn of the Century, at least four species of Schlumbergera were introduced, and a few popular interspecific hybrids took over the scene. You may have noticed that some Schlumbergera have lobster claw shaped foliage segments, or you may remember old fashioned forms with rounded leaves. I too wondered why these plants are different, and only recently discovered that Christmas Cactus have an interesting back story, and different forms evolved from different crosses between different species.

A modern hybrid form of Schlumbergera 


Every plant has a story, and we can  thank, Charles Lemaire (1801-1871) who in 1858 named this genus after Frédéric Schlumberger (1823-1893). Schlumberger was French collector of  cacti and succulents. In the late 1800's the most common Schlumbergera was one of these hybrids, S. x buckleyi, ( named for another plant explorer Buckley in 1852). A cross between two species, S. truncata and S. russelliana, this is still found today as a hand-me-down houseplant, but never found in retail situations. I have a close relationship with this form since this is the Christmas Cactus my mother grew in large Roseville containers on our window seat in the dining room in the 1960's, and I still have the offspring of these large, woody specimen plants that bloomed every Christmas. This is the variety with rounded leaves that your mother or great grandmother most likely grew.

There are six distinct species within the genus of Schlumbergera,  all are native to Brazil and in their native environment, they sometimes experience near freezing conditions. In the wild, they grow epiphytically on tree trunks or branches, which provides a hint on the sort of growing conditions they like - moist, jungles that are cool, rainy but with roots in mediums that are fast draining. Growers must remember that these are not cacti at all.

The six species known are:

Schlumbergera russelliana
Schlumbergera truncata
Schlimbergera orssichiana
Schlumbergera kautskyi
Schlumbergera opuntioides
Schlumbergera microssphaerica

If you are wondering where the Thanksgiving Cactus or Easter Cactus fit in, they are not classified as Schlumbergera, but are infact different genus all together.

Today there are many hybrids, with new ones being introduced every year ( and surprisingly, old ones being retired by growers every year, too). So if you once remembered a yellow fringed form from ten years ago, it may no longer be available today. Plant breeders started hybridizing Schlumbergera agressively in the late 1970s, and by the 1980’s many named and registered forms were introduced. Most Christmas Cactus are created and marketed as series by plant breeders, and some are well known with collectors. Just go to eBay or Google Zygocactus and you will see the vast number of forms that are named.

In the 1990’s, a number of named series were introduced quickly being distributed under series names like the Thor series from Denmark, and  Dancer series from the Netherlands. Yellow forms are known to show less pink in their petals if kept at warmer temperatures when in bud, and newer named yellow forms are more pure in color.  Also note that many of the large commercial growers change their series names every year, so keeping track of registered names is challenging.

Like many plants where pink or red becomes the default form, a yellow variety becomes all the rage, and so it is with Christmas Cactus. Older yellow forms introduced in the 1980's were bronzy in tone, but every year, newer introductions become more pure. Japanese plant breeders have introduced some  better yellow forms recently, such as ‘Chiba Lara’ and Sunny Bright’. But these are difficult to find in the marketplace. The hottest forms are Chimera's or mutations, most notably one called 'Enigma' which has a tassel of stamens rather than petals. I've been trying to obtain some cuttings on eBay auctions, but I chicken out when the bids rise beyond $100. There are some things that I just feel are not worth it!

A quick shot in poor light, of one of my seed raised plants in the plant window.

Christmas Cactus are easy to grow, and they make long-lived house plants, but some people find them challenging to bloom on schedule.
If you are having trouble getting Schlumbergera to bud and bloom, the trick is simple to allow your plants to experience the shortening day length of autumn and winter.  In a greenhouse, it’s much easier to provide this seasonal shift in light quality, because there is less of a chance that a table lamp or a streetlight may throw off their photoperiod. It helps even more if the night time temperatures drops at the same time, with a ten degree shift enhancing any bud formation. Our grandparents would follow a simple routine here in New England, moving their Christmas Cactus into a cellar window for the month of October. Essentially, for plants to form buds, they plants should go dry for much of autumn and they must receive at least 12 hours of darkness every day.

December 11, 2010

Decorating outdoors part 1

Joe wraps pine garland around the post of the Martin house, it is made from our local White Pine, Pinus strobus, a common New England native pine.

Every year I seem to have elaborate plants on how I want to decorate the house and garden, but with a busy job ( working at Hasbro as a principal designer, it's a bit like being one of Santa's elves, even though we design 2 years in advance!) ( ...and, yes, as a little girl at Whole Foods announced to everyone today, Joe in this shot indeed, looked like one of Santa's elves! A 6 foot 3 elf.) - anyway, I digress......our busy lives leave little time for decorating anything, it seems, but this year, I feel rather Christmasy, so perhaps I will find more time. This weekend, we start with the greenhouse side of the house, the boxwood garden, Martin house and front hedges.
Fergus watches Joe complete his task, while Margaret stays by the Greenhouse door ready to help plug in the extension cord. This year's motif on this side  of the house, is red and white lights. 
Of course, this is what makes if worth while. Hot chocolate. It did snow a little last night, but only a dusting. A foot of snow at this point would have made the scene perfect.
Lydia and Fergus beg for cookies.
As evening falls, the light are illuminated. We lined the edges of the greenhouse, which we do every few years, with white lights which will remain on the structure for a year or so. We like to turn them on during snowstorms, parties, and in the spring when we host garden parties and plant society tours. It adds a little something when visitors go out to the greenhouse, even when the daffodils are in bloom on spring evenings.

Even without a foot of snow, the greenhouse looks nicer. We like to add spot lights under the shrubs and trees, which we also keep lit at night in the summer, a touch that few people seem to do, but take a lesson from restaurants and public gardens - a few well positioned spot lights on tree trunks and trees with nice branches if often all one needs for Holiday lighting, and during the rest of the year, its a nice surprise for guests. You don't have to live at a beach resort to have permission to light your garden specimens at night!