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May 5, 2019

The Art and Craft of Mapling with the folks from MapleMama


MAPLE SYRUP IS ABOUT AS OLD FASHIONED AS ONE CAN GET IN NEW ENGLAND BUT LIKE MANY ARTISIONAL PRODUCTS, INNOVATION IS CHANGING EVERYTHING. HERE IS A STORY ABOUT HOW ONE FAMILY NEAR ME IS USING MAPLE SYRUP TO CREATE A COMPLETELY NEW CRAFTED PRODUCT.


It's hard to avoid maple sugaring in much of rural New England, a season that sometimes begins as early as mid-February or as late as the end of March, as it was this year. Sugaring season is when the daytime temperatures rise above freezing during the day but drop below freezing at night, and it ends once the sugar maples bloom.


MAPLE SUGARING SEASON STARTS WHEN THE DAYTIME TEMPERATURES RISE ABOVE FREEZING BUT THE NIGHT TEMPS DIP BELOW 32° F. JOE LAUR, OWNER OF THIS PROPERTY CHECKS HIS SAP BUCKETS DAILY WAITING FOR THE SEASON TO BEGIN. THIS YEAR IT STARTED IN MID-MARCH.



The scent of maple steam wafting out of sugar shacks is everywhere, and it's just one of the joys of living in the Northeastern US. Sugaring is being rediscovered by an entirely new generation of course, just as other craft movements are so it's really not unusual to see sugar bushes (groves of sugar maples) with the blue plastic pipes running for hundreds of yards near most any farm. But thanks to my friend Cheryl who used to work with me at Hasbro, I was given a chance to see a real old fashioned maple sugar shack in action a few weeks ago - and now I think I am kind of addicted (as if I don't need another reason to move to the Berkshires or Vermont!).


I REALLY APPRECIATED THESE METAL. SUGARING PAILS AS MOST NEW ENGLAND SUGAR BUSHES USE BLUE PLASTIC FLEX TUBES WHICH ARE MORE PRACTICAL, BUT SOMETHING GETS LOST IN THE EXPERIENCE GAME. WHEN SUGARING ON YOUR OWN FARM, THIS ENHANCES THE PROCESS.

NEW SUGARING TAPS ARE PLASTIC LIKE THIS ONE, AND ON COLD NIGHTS, THE SAP ACTUALLY FREEZES. (WHICH INCREASES THE SUGAR CONTENT WITH THE LIQUID THAT IS LEFT IN THE PAIL - YOU CAN ACTUALLY TASTE THE SWEETNESS!


My friend Cheryl convinced me (with just a phone call as it really doesn't take too much convincing) to go with her to a sugaring facility in western Massachusetts - and what I discovered was that conventional and traditional methods can be used today, especially if one is only making  a few dozen gallons for home use (or for friends).



JOE LAUR OWNER OF THE MAPLE MAMA BRAND AND THIS GREAT AUTHENTIC SUGAR SHACK.


The owner of this small sugar shack is Joe Laur, and while I was not expecting what I discovered (the old-fashioned tap and bucket method he uses around his property), I was told by Cheryl that he (like us) was once in the corporate world, but now lives on a nice private farm-like property on a river and through the woods in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts. Yes. I wanted to see this, for it will add to my dream of owning my own place and making maple syrup one day.



A SUGAR SHACK NEEDS LOTS OF DRY, AGED FIREWOOD. LOTS.


What I discovered was that while Joe makes syrup for friends and neighbors, what he does is own another company that produces not syrup at all, but a maple soda (oops, I mean a craft maple beverage- gotta love a completely new product!). Joe and his wife invented it themselves quite simply one day while trying to make a lower-sugar drink for their kids. Sparkling water flavored with maple syrup and whatever other fruit they had in the kitchen.  What they invented was actually a healthy soda because as you probably know, maple has a ton of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.


JOE COLLECTS THE SAP DAILY ONCE THE SEASON BEGINS, AND THIS YEAR IT WAS LATE. SUGARING SEASON IN THE NORTHEAST USUALLY BEGINS IN FEBRUARY AND ENDS WHEN THE SUGAR MAPLE TREES BEGIN TO BLOOM, WHICH THIS YEAR WAS JUST A FEW WEEKS AGO.

In case you are interested - MaplemMama is relatively new, I know that he is offering it at some food festivals this coming year so look for it, and a few of our local Whole Foods carry it he says.  Oh, there are flavors too.  I didn't try the raspberry as for some reason I don't like the taste of raspberry but I think I could live on the Vanilla Bean and Lemon Ginger flavored flavors!  I even looked for it at the Whole Foods in Cambridge this week (but couldn't find it), but it's now on Amazon too.



JOE STARTED MAPLE MAMA WITH A SIMPLE PREMISE - TO MAKE A HEALTHIER DRINK FOR HIS KIDS. IT HAS NOW GROWN INTO A BIGGER BUSINESS, BUT AT HOME HE STILL TAPS HIS OWN TREES AND BOILS HIS OWN SAP FOR FRIENDS, FAMILY, AND NEIGHBORS RIGHT HERE IN MASSACHUSETTS.


I'm not exactly sure why they named it 'MapleMama', but out in the forest, Joe showed me something that might be why. ( A 250-YEAR-OLD SUGAR MAPLE!). Joe asked us if we wanted to see the whole sugaring process up close from beginning to end. Of course!


WE WERE ABLE TO PRESSURE MY FRIEND CHERYL TO TAKE A SWIG STRAIGHT FROM THE SAP BUCKET. OF COURSE, IT HAD ICE IN IT TOO, WHICH WHEN IT RELEASED FROM THE BOTTOM, SPLASHED HER. SHE HADTO AGREE THAT IT DID TASTE VERY GOOD.



Now...if you knew Cheryl - this might just be the best part of our day in the woods.  First, the entire idea of Cheryl in the woods is something worth photographing. First off, she didn't even have boots let alone sneakers or socks. What she was wearing was something like patent leather Chanel flats.  Oh, Cheryl.

Holding her elbow though we helped her be a good sport and trudged through the snow, letting her step in the tractor ruts. Yup. Cheryl. Tractor ruts. I think she found it totally worth the effort though for a few hundred feet out behind the barns we came across the classic New England calendar motif of giant ancient sugar maples with gorgeous old galvanized buckets on them, each one full of maple sap. These weren't just for decoration, clearly, Joe was all about the total experience of sugaring. I get it. I would be too.


HOW PERFECT IS THIS - SUGAR MAPLE WOOD HEATING THE EVAPORATOR THAT REDUCES MAPLE SAP!


Maple sap is like water before it is evaporated over a few days in the sugar shack, but as Joe demonstrated - when it freezes, it condenses the unfrozen part which then tastes a bit sweeter and even a touch mapley. He handed me a bucket to taste (yes, right out of the frozen bucket) and then he handed it to Cheryl. Always a good sport, she sipped a few swigs but then the ice that was frozen to the bottom fell and maple sap splashed all over her Dior coat (or whatever coat it was). We all laughed, and I just wished that I had caught that image on my camera.



THE SAP THAT JOE LAUR COLLECTS IS BROUGHT DOWN NEARLY THE OLD FASHIONED WAY (BUT NOT WITH HORSE AND SLEIGH, BUT WITH A TRACTOR). IT IS THEN FED INTO A TANK THAT CAREFULLY ALLOWS IT TO FEED INTO THE EVAPORATOR.


Joe then took me deeper into to woods to see some other buckets and a few very old sugar maples - Acer saccharum - which he felt were over 200 years old. Given their girth (7-8 feet), they were indeed the 'Maple Mama's' of this farm. We carried some sap back to Joe's sugar shack to add to the evaporator that he has already had fired up.



FRESH MAPLE SAP LOOKS LIKE WATER, BUT IT DOES TASTE SLIGHTLY SWEET EVEN STRAIGHT FROM THE TREE. EVEN SWEETER IF IT FREEZES A BIT WHICH CONCENTRATES THE SUGARS.


Sap needs to boil down for a few days, moving from one chamber to another before being bottled. A slow process, but this is a leisurely lifestyle. We who still work can only dream of having the luxury of just sitting in a chair, sipping some maple tea (syrup poured into hot water) and watch the fire, stoking it from time to time from the wood pile. Ahhh. 



IT TAKES A FEW DAYS FOR THE SAP TO REDUCE BUT WHO CARES BECAUSE THIS SLOW PROCESS IS WHAT MAKING MAPLE SYRUP IS ALL ABOUT. FEEDING THE FIRE, THE SMELL OF WOOD SMOKE, THE SCENT OF MAPLE STEAM. IT DOESNT GET MORE NEW ENGLAND THAN THIS.


JOE LEFT A JOB IN THE CORPORATE WORLD. (LIKE ME AND MY FRIEND CHERYL) TO DO WHAT HE LOVES MOST. ON THIS SMALL FARM IN THE BERKSHIRES OF MASSACHUSETTS WHERE HE HAS A LARGE VEGETABLE GARDEN, FRUIT TREES, A SWIMMING HOLE, SOLAR ENERGY, AND A SMALL BEVERAGE BUSINESS. PRETTY PERFECT LIFE, I'LL SAY.


I wanted though to give a shout out to Joe's Maple Mama Craft Beverage (it's non-alcoholic so don't let the word craft throw you!).  I hope it takes off, not only because it's good but because I liked the whole family story behind it. There are other flavors like Cold Brew Coffee and more to come I hear, so look for it - maybe in a Whole Foods or in an organic section of your market.



LASTLY, JOE SHOWED ME SOME OF HIS OLD MAPLE TAP COLLECTION. HE HAS DOZENS AND DOZENS OF THESE, MANY MADE IN THE 1800'S WITH DATES ON THEM. AS A COLLECTOR OF. 'THINGS' MYSELF,  THIS WAS ALL I NEEDED - TO DISCOVER SOMETHING ELSE TO COLLECT!



April 24, 2019

The Perfect Spring

Primula elatior, the English Oxlip simple yet so rarely seen in American gardens. If you want your garden to look like the hundred acre wood, this is the plant to seek out. Will you find it? Probably not unless you raise it from seed or join the American Primrose Society. It isn't rare. Just hard to find as commercial growers ignore it.  There is no Proven Winners Primula elatior. Popular in Shakesperian England, and still common there today.   I grow mine from seed bought online from Jelitto in Germany. The easiest of all the primula, I think. Sow indoors or under glass in February, grow on and set out in early summer and they'll bloom next spring. Very cold hardy perhaps to zone 4. or even 3.


Gardeners love to complain about the weather. New Englanders love to complain about the weather, but this year, dare I admit that it is indeed the perfect spring, at least here in New England, and at least, for the plants.  What is 'a perfect spring'? A long, slow and gradual thaw (with no surprise freezes which here in the Northeast still can happen until mid-May) and few extreme fluctuations. I can add no drought, although we are about 2" over our average rainfall. With all of this, the native plants are emerging slowly and steadily, and the imports (remember, so many of our ornamental plants are Asian) are gradually opening up.


The giant Butterbur or Petasites japonicus ssp. giganteus just emerged two weeks ago with cobs of purple flowers. Now, a couple of weeks later, the flowers are extending upwards and the giant leaves - which will gradually expand to nearly 3 feet across, are all on schedule.


Last week I spoke in Denver at the Denver Botanic Gardens for two days. - landing in snow or what they called a Bomb Cyclone, our plane was the last to land before they closed the airport, and what I experienced is very much the sort of spring we usually get here just outside of Boston. That would be a spring with surprise snow storms, ice and freezing temperatures that make mush out of magnolia flowers and bend over even tulips and hyacinths. Here? The primula species are emerging just as if they were growing in the Himalaya, or in the French Alps. The Asiatic species of garden perennials like the Rodgersia, Lilium and even the Petasites japonica are coming out of the ground and blooming later than normal, but nice and slow. The way it should be.

I am always picking up rare plants at plant sales or getting some as gifts. Here is one I completely forgot that I had (and there are two clumps!). Galucidium palmatum. Sometimes it's just nice to see everything before it opens up.



We had a mild winter here in Massachusetts but that didn't help our rampant population of bamboo which has become so invasive. This Sasa veitchii (the brown leaves at the bottom of the image) is now everywhere in our garden, and with culms and roots that reach down deep (nearly 2 feet) I cannot get rid of it. I am open to any suggestions. Please.



While often challenging as a bulb plant, the mostly native North American Dog'sToothViolet can be highly collectible and highly challenging. But this one isn't. Erythronium 'Pagoda' is a commercially (Dutch) grown common selection that is hardy and easy. You can get the look of an alpine meadow in the Cascades without spending 35 dollars a bulb.

I know, I know. Lots of invasives, but this native Podophyllum peltatum, our local and family Mayapple, is always a welcome sight in the spring. It never grew here on our family property and woodlands, but it was from a clump in a wild colony that Joe and I found back in the 1980's near his parents' house in Northborough, MA. Seeing it always reminds me of him digging a bunch and filling up the trunk of my new 1984 Fiero. Shut up.

We're all native now. Our native bloodroot, Sanguinaria is often overlooked for the fancier and showier double forms, but this one - again, from a wild-collected stock that I got while I was in College at UMASS. Of course, in the late 1970s and as a 18 year old, digging something from the wild wasn't frowned upon. In fact, our professor encouraged it. At least I still have the colony.

I guess digging from the wild is a theme here. Clearly don't do it boys and girls. Never dig in the wild. I was kid and not very responsible. Plus, I was a plant nerd and there was no stopping me.  We now know better. Protecting our native and wild populations is what we are all about. Really. Still, there is a story here. This was collected by Joe and I around 1987 when we lived in upstate New York near Tuxedo Park and I was working in the city. Dutchman's Breeches or Dicentra cucullaria was running all over our property. Now, this population has spread throughout our woodlands. 



Epimedium. This one from my friend Darrell Probst is from western China, but I include it because in today's gardens we often combine wildflowers from similar climates elsewhere in the world. Collected? Yep. But carefully propagated from seed not plants, and just like our diverse human population, our gardens can and often are just as diverse.

Even though I've been very busy with my new job in Boston, I need to be creative in finding any free time as I am still speaking on most weekends on my book tour. Not to mention that I am writing another book which has had to have it's deadline slightly extended (no worries, it will still come out next February). A book a year. - that's my goal. Here, English Spencer Sweet Peas are set out into the garden, this time in a column of pea brush (fothergilla).  I chose 6 shades of purple and blue for this collumn. Curated colors look best.

I'm growing many annual poppies again, but remember -Irish Terriers rule the land here. I am being clever and using chicken wire and netting to keep these tiny seedlings safe. Sown a few weeks ago just as the snow melted, these Shirley Poppies were sown with sand and seed mixed together, and then sifted through a kitchen sieve onto lightly raked soil. They look big here but believe me they are tiny. This lot will need to be thinned soon, with the excess tossed because one cannot transplant poppies.

The classic Matt Mattus shot, right?  I need new props.   Oh...I. bought one - look in the photo below and see if you can see the new flat black Haws English watering can from Terrain. (it was an exclusive and limited edition color!).

Last year I started training some red-flowered rosemary into globes using armature wire. They are looking fine now. A classic English method that one can see at Great Dixter, and now here in Wormtown, MA.

Oh, Genista canariensis. You make the greenhouse so lemony! Really - true story. For my entire life, I could never smell this but Joe would always tell me that it scented the entire greenhouse with a rich lemon Pledge furniture Polish scent, yetI could never smell it. At all. Nothing. Yet, this year? I can smell it. Weird, right? Although, I would say that it smells like lemon scented Lestoil floor cleaner. Not exactly a yummy lemon flavor, but still somewhat an artificial lemon scent.

My pots of what are some of my most favorite bulbs. - Rhodohypoxis baurii are beginning to bloom again in the sand beds inside the greenhouse. 

I am growing many hard-to-find annuals this year. Flowers that one can rarely find anywhere (mostly for my book, but many for clients who might be interested in trying some). This Malope (in the hibiscus or mallow family) should be lovely with bright pink, wide flowers all summer long on bushy plants. 

A bit of rarity and joy. Agepetes blooms on some very long and vine-like branches.  I've been waiting 2 years for this to bloom.

We acquired some very rare Primroses from Japan. Primula sieboldii is hard enough to find, but these are very special and while I can't say too much about them as the grower made us promise not to sell or share them (they are very precious in Japan), I felt that I could show some here. This double is called 'Elegant'.

This P .sieboldii double is a cultivar named 'Oni. Gokko'

This double with an odd flower is named 'Maimomiji'. I think we have about 60 but they are small, and I am waiting for the others to bloom.

There are so many nice begonias available now. I zipped down to Logee's last Friday to stock up for myself and clients for summer containers, summer porch displays and,well, OK, yes, for myself too.

Lily bulbs are beginning to be shipped in spring as well by some lily nurseries. I had been looking for the large, orange and rust colored trumpet lily named 'African Queen' and found a (secret, sorry) source. I ordered 20 bulbs for one giant clump. OK, I got them from the Lily Nook, in Canada.  They ship to the US, but typically in late autumn.

It's going to be a fragrant summer!  Trumpet lilies can grow 6-7 feet tall with many blossoms. Planted in clumps of 10 or 20 (as they grow in the wilds of western China) is how they look best. Extravagant?Maybe, but they take up about the same space as a hydrangea does but who in your neighborhood does this?  Imagine how it will look!



March 27, 2019

Create An Original Spring, Indoors and Out

New spring. growth on pomegranate trees in the greenhouse emerges very early, even have a freeze. It's often our first sign on spring. Trees can be kept on a very cold porch or even in a garage bare all winter and rather dry if the temperatures don't drop below 20 degrees. Their new growth always looks fresh and like April (but in March).

While there are great things to say about the democratization of design, retail stores  - the whole  'Target' thing,  and how today even garden centers and plant producers are bringing us more and more choices with branded plants and amazing products in nicer sizes and early enough plant, that in many ways we are better off than our parents were. But then again, if you are like me, you go to the garden center and peruse the aisles at the big box store where there are only circus colored pansies or weird combinations of colors that I frankly wouldn't buy.  When it comes to designing your own spring containers, sometimes a little creativity and forethought will go a long way. If you settle for convenience, you may just end up with containers that look lovely, but with ones that look just like everyone else on the street.





Lily of the Valley, forced is a perfectly original indoor statement, and something that few will have,


Our new plant window and library window  is still under construction (I still need to decide what color to paint the woodwork) but I had to bring in pots from the greenhouse for some well-earned spring display. Lachenalia, Cape Primroses, rare ferns, camellias and that palm-looking plant which is a Dioon (cycad) in Guy Wolff pottery really helped me feel good about the delay with the window seat. I had it covered in green Brazillian slate so that heavy pots could be set on it.



The system is simply set up that way, with so many evaluators along the way that by the time a pansy or succulent shows up at your local nursery - the palette has been edited - often by criteria such as cost, your economic zone where you live or by someone who frankly (I'll say it) doesn't have a great aesthetic. It happens everywhere, but I think more so in the plant business. The person making the decision to buy 2000 flats of pansies may prefer double, brilliant yellow or bright purple over the newer introductions like bronze, brown or tiger striped. It's just a matter of taste, but as we all know, taste is a subjective thing.



Spring in the greenhouse means moss on the pots. Which many love visually (me too). Of course, it's not always a good thing as pots must be washed with a bleach solution each spring to sterilize them - but don't try telling that to interior designers who love the look. Must like moss in the garden, it just grows where it wants to grow and no one can force it to grow where it doesn't. I think I know a few people like that! But there are plenty who keep trying to promote moss as a design element even if it can't be forced to grow. 


Indoors and outside spring is slowly coming on here in New England. This year it's been a nice, slow spring which is great for the plants, but not for impatient gardeners. Our snowdrops are just emergins as are the crocus and other early spring bulbs. There are those years where they all bloom in late February, but this year, it's more typical if not normal.

Snowdrops in this Maryland gardens that I saw last week were all in full bloom, but this is when they should be divided as it is easy to dig and separate clumps into smaller clumps to speed-up division. This grower started with just a few bulbs 30 years ago, and now her woodlands are full of flowering clumps. So lovely under the deciduous trees, which is what they really enjoy.

The lawns are Longwood (near Mr. DuPont's house) were planted with thousands of crocus and eranthis. The trick here, as we have a crocus lawn in the old golf putting green that my parents had installed in the 1940's is to use freshly dug bulbs if they are eranthis, which are difficult to find, and as for crocus, avoid the large hybrid Dutch varieties and opt for a species type or Crocus. tommasianus selections which is by far the finest species to use.
Crocus Lawns should be raked and thatched very early or you risk damaging the flowers.



Eranthis hymalis - the winter Aconite -will self seed and spread if fresh bulbs are planted in the fall. Find a friend who has some or dig and spread around your own if they are self seeding, but it may take time to get good stock that isnt dead when you order it.

Anemone's (the dutch sort like these) and commerically raised ranunculus are the darlings of the internet and local flower farm movementm, and whille you will see pots sold at garden centers, if you winters are cold and the ground freezes dont expect them to return. Treat them as annuals. While cold-tollerant, if you buy corms in the fall plant them in a hoop house or a cold greenhouse and you will be rewarded with early blooms in spring.  Beyond that, enjoy the ones you buy for early spring containers and dont worry about it.

Indoors you all know that I am a big fan of Cape Hyacinths, or Lachenalia. The newer hyubrids like these African Beauty strain varieties are so easy to grow (if you can find the bulbs in the fall) that they should have replaced paperwhite narcissus in popularity, but sadly, few know about them. I like that they were far more popular in the mid 19th century than today.

The old fashioned winter or greenhouse primroses like these Primula obconica were once so popular (They still are in Tokyo) but here? Forget about it. Old catalogs from 1910 show pages and pages of them for early spring color in windows and containers, and their color palette of apricot, periwinkle and coral is so on point today, but few growers offer them. I know - Pacific Plug and Liner even offered the almost extinct Primula sinensis but buyers and agents are not familiar with it or they feel that consumers wont be familiar with it, so they rarely offer them to clients.

Another view of my new plant window. Later I will share more photos, and yes - more Primula obconica.




Another flower in spring that has completely falled out of favor is the Schizanthus. I have a 1920 catalog from Suttons in England that has 5 pages of seed varieties but who today has a greenhouse or staff to grow these for their conservatory? Then again, who has a conservatory? But wouldnt you love these "butterfly orchids" in your home or spring containers? Just try to find them though., I've only seen them grown well three times in 30 years. First at Butchart Gardens when I was kid in Vancouver while visiting, once at Kew in the year 1999 and then last week at Longwood. Yes - I grow them myself from seed and I have a few flats ready for special clients, but beyond that, good luck.

The color palette of Schizanthus varieties is varied and odd, and maybe not for everyone, but they sing for me. There are wild and a couple of species forms from seed available. which are better in the garden but they must be raised from seed at home. A few commercial strains exist, that a handful of capable growers to grow regionally, but these cool weather plants would surely be marketable if only people knew about them.

Check out this camellia I brought into the house last week. The anemone form is so rarely seen, but what a show it puts on.

FYI - My English Spencer sweet peas are growing fast. - especially those for friends and a handful of special clients. I am growing 62 named varieties this year. More than ever, but there are never enough, right? Iam gorwing pots of dwarf sweetpeas this year. - all white vintage varieties and some pink. Just a trial, but they look great so far. Most of the truly dwarf varieties from 1900 are lost so tracking some down was a surprise.



Also in our new plant window is this pretty pale yellow camellia. So floriferous, but it only comes in while in bloom then whisked back out to the cool and buoyant greenhouse. Got a heated porch or a bright garage window? A mudroom that is cool? Then this one may be good for you.