November 17, 2015


The espalier apple trees are fixed for the long winter ahead with their fruit removed for the season.  With Thanksgiving just around the corner, November marks a transitional time in the garden between outdoor chores, and greenhouse play.

I love November. Really, I do. It means that winter is coming. OK, stop it. Listen, I can like winter and like gardening at the same time. This is the time of year when gardening chores slow down, become more focused (since they are limited to my greenhouse projects which I enjoy more),a nd in other ways, they just become more cerebral - time to read, think, plan and dream.

These gray, autumnal days, albeit shorter than summer, are hardly what William Cullen Bryant calls "the saddest of the year".


I would think that distinction might go to March.

On the back porch, heirloom apples from the espalier apples in front of the greenhouse gifted us a few dozen fruit this year. These have been making their way into tarte tartin and oatmeal  for breakfast. Not perfect, since we didn't spray, they are still clear inside even though the skins are imperfect. Yes, that is a tomato!

The great poets seemed to appreciate little about November.  I can't find many positive stanza's or even phrases which don't include the words 'dreary' , 'dull' or 'bleak'.

(Robert Frost goes further to describe it as "sodden", whilst (yes, I said whilst) Sir Walter Scott penned out - "November's sky is chill and drear…", but dear Emily Dickinsen went further with:

 "November always seemed to me the Norway of the year."

 Whah? !

There has to be a story behind that….. because I love Norway, as well.

In the vegetable garden, the beds are cleaned up, with only hardy herbs left out along with a few carrots.

It's all happening in the greenhouse, right now. Chrysanthemums, the first of the cymbidium orchids and lots of South African bulbs.

Speaking of South African Bulbs - The Nerine sarniensis varieties are in full bloom, and rather spectacular.

Also known as Guersey Lilies, Nerine sarniensis are rarely seen today outside of a few collectors and private collections.

These relatives of the common Amaryllis are smaller and more delicate looking, but grow in a similar way, from a bulb which sits halfway into the soil in a pot. They require a hot, summer rest with no water, and a long, winter growing period with moisture and bright light, which limits who can grow them well to those with cold greenhouses.

My collection of about 100 bulbs has about a third of them blooming every year, they are a bit shy. Many of these varieties date back to the early 20th Century, and all hail from the UK, mostly the Exbury hybrids.

Outside, the gardens are cleaned and spotless because of a photoshoot last week. Even the boxwoods have bee sheered. I know, I could have centered the strawberry pot better!

November 12, 2015


Halloween night, kids could now walk the length of our long entrance path, illuminated with these bright LED path lights which out-shine any other path light we've tried. Into our dumpster went a whole bunch of ineffective solar lights.

A few years ago, we started using spot lights to up-light our outdoor birch trees instead of Holiday lights. The effect was so great, that each year we add more outdoor spots, illuminating the house, the plants and trees from below, and - get this, we now leave them up all year. There's a few problems thought - regular light bulbs are expensive, and we have extension cords running all over the place which generally get caught up in the snowblower tines, not to mention the cost of electricity and broken bulbs.

The look is spectacular though. So pretty at night, that we've noticed some neighbors copying us. Now, the generally uninteresting homes in our neighborhood are starting to look a little like hip bread and breakfast places!.

If you ever have thought about what it's like writing a blog, I shall remind you that yes - it can be tedious. For whatever reason, I have fallen into a routine where I actually enjoy the process (even though I've only been posting about one post a week lately - believe me, I have a very good reason that I can't really talk about right now!).

Our front walk, now illuminated at night with these fully wired in, path lights from SUPERBRIGHTLEDS.COM - I'm convinced, and now want to order more for our ether paths.

About 5 months ago I received a request to consider partnering with a company called SUPERBRIGHTLEDS.comhttps://www.superbrightleds.com. Really. I thought it was a joke, after all, when I visited their site and saw their awfully "super bright" logo (remember, I am also a graphic designer), I groaned and a-l-m-o-s-t clicked away.

But then, I really thought about it…..I thought about my own experience with less-than-effective solar path lights from big box stores, and - - I looked at all that they offered at SUPERBRIGHTLEDS.com, and I responded with a few ideas. More than a few, really, since once I started looking - at underwater lights, and color change lights, at directional path lighting, I began to see all sorts of possibilities.

Here is what we used from the site for our path:

      8 Landscape Path Lights - single tier, 4 watt
The ground mounting stake and east-to-screw-on connectors are included with each lamp ($19.99 each. Think about it , only about twice the cost of the solar versions which only last about one year, and are too weak to effectively light the walk.

     50 feet of Low Voltage cable 14 gage

Finally, here is a video showing how easy they are to install on Youtube

The benefits outweigh any time spent on installing real, wired lighting, but come on - even I could handle this installation. Snap, click and plug-in? Who needs an electrician (but the results sure look as if I hired one!)

But before I begin, let's think about the LED lights that we know from the past.

We see LED lights everywhere today. In this past week, I've seen how LED lights have evolved from harsh, almost clinical lighting to lighting with brilliant clarity that brings out the truest colors of food and plants, in much the same way that a brand new pair of glasses does (if you wear glasses!).

As a designer, I am critical about lighting and color, so I have resisted introducing any LED lights into my home, but recently they are sneaking in without be even knowing it. Our new refrigerator is loaded with lights on every shelf, but I have yet to covert to holiday lights for outdoors - that is, until this year after seeing some installed on trees at our nearby botanic garden, Tower Hill. Holiday lights are starting to show how LED lights are improving, so why not consider them?

One thing that will happen however, is if you are blessed enough to have many readers and followers which will lead to a good blog rank ( thank you ALL of you!), you will begin to receive offers for free giveaways, sponsored posts, book reviews and even product placement. To be clear up-front, this is a product placement post - but don't click away just yet - for as those of you who know me, I am pretty selective about who I partner with, and with nearly 20 requests a week for partnerships, and only about 5 annual partner posts, - that alone should show you how selective I am.

Like any technology, LED lighting keeps improving, but that doesn't mean that I am completely open to converting over just yet - then, as what happens with a top blog sometimes, I get an email from an LED company. At first, I almost deleted it (really - I think I did deleted the first few). Believe me when I tell you that I sometimes get requests for partnerships and sponsored posts for some of the strangest non-gardening products. Heck, sometimes, even the relatively-close-to-gardening-offers are so off-brand that I can tell immediately that they never even read my blog - (I may do a post about these sometimes, since some are quite funny).

The SUPERBRIGHTLED website has links to many, many, many YOUTUBE videos on how to install the various lights in your garden.

Now, back to why I finally changed my mind about LED lights - - with this offer, my imagination started to run. I couldn't help it! I had visions of Disney's 'World of Color' fountain lights, and Las Vegas' Bellagio-style supernovas! As my imagination ran, I could see our summer garden transform into a boutique hotel in Miami Beach, with all the tropical and lush bananas, alocasia and cannas illuminated from below spots (maybe even with color-change features!), but for that, I will have to wait until next spring.

I love how these bright LED lights look in the evening, something which was difficult to capture with my camera, but believe me, I want to order lots of these lights for our other walks now - it's where my Christmas lighting budget will be going.

The way I see it, I have the entire, long New England winter to plan for our garden illumination, and every spare $100 bucks or so, will go towards another feature (this walk would cost around $100) for materials - which really is only a few dollars more than those cheap, ineffective solar lights from the big box stores.

Joe helped install the lights along the studio walk, which only took on tool and about a half hour.

I hope that this post will change your outdoor life - at the very least, it will change your nighttime garden appearance or your entrance. As for electricity cost, LED's use much less electricity than incandescent bulbs - we leave ours on 24/7 now, and even our elderly neighbors have commented on how safe they feel when they look down into this portion of our garden  from across the street - which once was black at night ( they liked it when we kept the lamp posts on!).

October 29, 2015


Joe bites into a dark, crispy' Black Oxford', an antique apple variety that dates back to 1790 in Paris, Maine.

Think about it - - how often can you really experience something that Benjamin Franklin actually ate? Just name one antique shop where you could eat the exact snack that Abraham Lincoln munched on while writing notes in his office. Here in New England, antiquity we can come across in so many ways that the idea of 'old' sometimes becomes diluted with its abundance- old signage and shops, two hundred year old stone walls and weathered barns, steeples and 'spot's where George Washington slept' - - but with a few, special things, (let's say food or plants), rarity, or maybe simply scarcity, factors in new dimension, once which transforms an experience, and so it is, with antique apples.

The 'Knobby Russet' or 'Knobbed Russet' hails from Sussex, England could be the planet's ugliest apple, but this gnarly treasure presents a complex flavor that is hard to define. Nutty, fruity and crisp, it may not make the shelves at your local supermarket, but eaten fresh or pressed into cider, it is sublime.

Ask most any farmer in New England or upstate New York where their favorite apple tree or variety is, and you will get a nostalgic and passionate short-list of trees, some 100 or even 200 or 300 years old. What you are not going to hear are names like Macintosh or Macoun, and you a re definitely not going to hear Red Delicious or Granny Smith come out of their mouths, after all, these are seasoned connoisseurs of apples, and they know what makes an apple great. Instead, you will hear more curious names, each often coming with a story, for every apple has a good story behind it). Even in his late 90's, my father, in his moments of faux-lucidity, through waves of dementia, dreamed out-loud about having to go pick (his) Roxbury Russets up on Rabbit Hill (after his 'paper route').

My dad always called these Sheepnose apples (not incorrect, as many farmers did), but Black Gilliflower (or Red Gilliflower)  is a far better name, for this parent of the modern Red Delicious. It's hard and elongated, with a crispy, flavorful flesh which sadly does not last long in storage, but it will make an epic pie!

Gnarly, russeted, knobby with warts, these aren't always pretty apples, at least to the average consumer, but their names often hint at the magical experience inside - Pomme Grise, Blue Pearmain,Pitmaston Pineapple, Winter Banana -- old apples deserve to be revisited for many reasons, not the least being hard cider! If you are a baker or pie maker, these apples may change how you feel about what apples you mother used, as she was often limited to what was available in the supermarket. Soft Cortland or Macoun apples can turn to pure mush at the site of a pie plate. Why not use the same apple that Benjamin Franklin used (Cox's Orange Pippen or Roxbury Russet) next time? History in a slice of pie.

With over 3000 heirloom apple and pear varieties hiding in old orchards around North America, it's our duty as plant people to seek out these forgotten fruits and re-introduce them into culture.

I am discovering even more history about apples in New England through my involvement with the Worcester County Horticultural Society, a society which was founded in 1840 and incorporated in 1842, mostly by industrialists and farmers who had close ties to apples. I've currently been obsessed with reading the proceedings of the WCHS meetings from the 19th century and their annual reports from the early archives which speak to the origins of many of these very apple varieties.

Ashmead's Kernel - can you say' hard 'cider'? At nearly 300 years old (perhaps older), this relic from the 1700's is noted for its distinctive pear-like flavor and russeted skin.

There seems to be no escaping historical cross-roads with apples, in my new role on the Board of Trustees at Tower Hill, for this is, indeed 'apple country', and most every bit of history with the 'society' it's history, it's very DNA has apples in it. The WCHS and Tower Hill Botanic Garden even maintains an important collection of old apple varieties at the botanic Garden in Boylson, MA, from which scion wood is shared with collectors (cuttings to graft with), each spring to those who are passionate about saving these living bits of our history.

Cox's Orange Pippin is often listed as the favorite eating apple by many plant people who know about it's charms. From around 1830 when this apple first appeared in literature in Buckinghamshire, England, it remains the classic English apple for both baking and hand eating - if one can find it!

 So why do we see so few antique or heirloom apples today? After all, one would think that with the current rise in popularity of heirloom-anything (apples, squash, flowers) that of all things, the common apple would rank right up there with a striped German or red Kale? The answer may be more about practicality than desire. Clearly, there is a market for interesting apples with a story and amazing taste, but the practical limiters might outweigh the benefits. Heirloom apples grow on trees, and not annual vines or plants which could be planted every year.

At Alyson's Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire, many heirloom apples are now being boxed for sale alongside other autumnal treats such as pumpkins and squashes.

They are not as resistant to the multitude of diseases and blights so common today with apples (fire blight, scab), and to be honest, most are really not that tasty, being more beautiful than yummy (truth-be-told, a new 20th Century Honeycrisp trumps most any old apple variety with the contemporary, everyday  palette of most consumers - yet, in much the same way they also prefer the flavor of news, super-sweet corn varieties, the real connoisseurs argue otherwise.

Blue Pearmain is old, but we are not sure how old. There is literature which lists it gin the Boston area in 1822 (Kendrick). Old-timers referred to it as a 'keeper' apple (as in "It's a keepah."), with apples lasting in a store room until March. An all-American variety, some trees still exist in upstate New York, and in New England.

Pitmaston Pineapple from around 1785 combines russeted texture with a flavor that can only be described as 'honey and crispy  pineapple'. Insane,  right?  Or, maybe you just want a plain, 'white-bready' Mac?

I personally adore the look and story of most antique apples, and, I even enjoy the flavor and crispness of a Cox's Orange Pippin or a Baldwin over most any hard, 'modern' apple, but to be fair, most of these old apples were not created or selected because of their delicious, out-of-hand eating potential, these russeted, bumpy or sometimes even ugly fruits had a more serious purpose - hard cider. And who could argue with that!

Homer shared with his his crates of ruby red 'Winesaps' (my mom's favorite) and  bloomy, purple --black 'Black Oxfords', along side speckled 'Blue Pearmain' and Esopus Spitzenburg'. I'm discovering quickly that with most of these old apples it's the names themselves which are as romantic as the horse-drawn sleighs and carriages which transported them from orchard to root cellar or cider press. 

Homer showed us his reference book for those fascinating knobbed Russets. It's a difficult tree to grow well, and the fruit has been limited to only a few dozen, but he hopes to increase stock as the tree matures.

The story behind each one could each be a separate book or post. Scions carried back nestled in linen wraps from England on a sailing ship, preserved fruit saving a family from starvation during a cold and snowy winter, a favorite variety selected and shared with an entire community, almost lost forever in a hurricane but rescued by a single tree - these relics are living history books. They happen to taste pretty good, too.

My sister in-law Toni, visiting us from Vancouver, WA picks out some' Esopus Spitzenburg' apples at Allyson's Orchard in New Hampshire. These date from the late 1700's. We'll be using them for applesauce.

If you are looking for something different and perhaps, even a culinary adventure (as many of the old apples are also known as 'cooking apples', search on-line in your area for orchards that have then (you may have to call and ask, for more often than not, only the orchard manager knows, or cares, about these trees). At out favorite orchard (Alyson's Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire), we call Homer Dunn ( I know, right? As if a Hollywood script writer invented his character). Homer is not only knowledgeable and gnarly, as a seasoned, orchard manager must be, he is also passionate about his apples - he even shared some rarer varieties with us this time, I think excited that some people actually cared enough to ask about them.

Black Oxford  apples are so beautiful! They almost loom like plums

Unlike heirloom tomatoes,  apples don't come true from seed (actually, no edible apple comes trues from seed, so if you are raising a treasured Honeycrisp or Red Gala from seed, expect a a strange, thorny back-cross which will only disappoint). Apples themselves have an amazing story with humanity, many coming from Europe in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to North America. Our garden is only a few towns away from where Johnn Appleseed (John Chapman) lived (Leominster, MA), and most every town and village around here has an apple named after it (Sutton Sweeting, Millbury Sweeting, Roxbury Russet to name a few). 

This Blue Pearmain is more colorful than some of the other fruit from the same tree.

My favorite apple to eat? It's a variety named Spencer, but I do enjoy a hard, crispy Winter Banana apple for taste as well as for nostalgia - My sister and I knew of a Winter Banana tree at one nearby orchard when we were kids. Another old apple, it dates from around 1876 and to a child, the name itself conjured up fantastical flavors. My sister and I would sneak away from the trees that my parents were working on, to a row of a few Winter Banana's at the far end of the orchard. Filling our shirts with the giant, yellow, waxy fruits we proceeded to hide them in a 'secret' compartment in my dad's station wagon ( as if they could not see us!).

At home, we laid all of our apples out on the dining table to study the differences. A few quinces were added to the mix along with some lady apples - when consumed fresh from the farm, they are surprisingly crisp and sweet.

These apple picking trips were common for us, and he would drive our old Country Squire Ford station wagon into the orchard during 'drops season', when we could pick 'drops' to make applesauce with in late October.  Our secret stash of apples was seen as 'frivolous' to my dad, who was quite serious about both his apples. Our store room in the cellar had a cork door and galvanized barrels where we should store apples for the winter. Picking apple with wire grabbers and long bamboo poles allowed us to gather the highest apples on the trees, which were by this point in the season, nearly frozen and offered at a discounted price. 

Another russeted apple, Hudson Golden Gem isn't that old after all, it was discovered in 1931 by the Hudson Wholesale Nurseries. It's a good choice for organic gardeners since it is resistant to many common apple diseases and apple scab.

Joe packs a box of colorful, mixed heirloom apples to take home. We used tape on which we wrote the names on.
We still picked a bushel of Honeycrisps!