Garden with Grace

"I hope that while so many people are out smelling the flowers, someone is taking the time to plant some." ~H.Rappaport


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Dig, Shake, Stir: From Garden to Bar

One of my favorite things about gardening is to find creative uses for harvested items, especially the herbs. Over the years, I’ve dried herbs to create interesting crafts with everlasting flowers such as lavender.  However, a favorite way to save and savor some favorites from the garden involve cocktail infusions.

When I have an abundance of  hot peppers at the end of each summer, I buy a bottle of plain vodka. Something like Smirnoff works well (though I do have a friend who chastises me, insisting I should only use top shelf spirits – – let’s just say that we agree to disagree!). I toss in a few spicy peppers that have been partially cut to the new bottle of  vodka and within a week, it becomes a spicy ingredient for a fantastic Bloody Mary! And as the Pepper Vodka ages, it gets even hotter — so I simply top the bottle off from time to time with more plain vodka. It’s seems like an endless bottle by mid winter. By the next summer, I’m really to start all over again.

In years past, my neighbor usually had so many peaches and plums that he resorted to begging his friends to take them from him – or he secretly delivered them to our homes, whether we wanted them or not! With his harvests, I’ve infused the peaches and plums in brandy.

Other experiments included pears infused in brandy and rhubarb infused in vodka. (Those were never made again, but were worth trying. In the end, it was a waste of good pears and rhubarb that could have been better used in a baked item where they would be enjoyed more.)

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This year, I tried two new infusions.  Blackberry Brandy and Lemongrass Vodka.

My friend Bobbi lives at the NH seacoast and is a fellow gardener. I love that her garden has a blackberry and blueberry patch, along with some pear and apple trees (and a pony named Sachi!)  At the end of last summer, I paid her a visit and returned home with armfuls of peaches, pears, blueberries, and blackberries. The peaches, pears and blueberries were saved for eating. But, the blackberries were picked with the intent to make a batch of Blackberry Brandy for the 2017 holiday season.

Blackberry Brandy is very easy to prepare. I simply took a large (sterilized) glass jar, added the blackberries (about 1.5 c) and a few tablespoons sugar (since the berries were more tart than sweet this year), lightly muddled the ingredients and then poured a bottle of E&J Brandy over the mixture. I let it sit in my cool, dark basement for 8 weeks, and stirred the dark, thick contents of the bottle weekly. Then I strained it through cheesecloth and bottled it. I’m pleased with the results, but will add more blackberries if I try this again next year.

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The surprise creation of the summer was the Lemongrass Vodka. I’ve grown lemongrass in the garden on and off for the past 20 years. Lemongrass plants are sometimes hard to find, so I simply get a stalk of lemongrass from the grocery store in the spring, put it in water, let it root and plant it in the garden in early summer (sometimes in a container, sometimes in the ground.) It makes a beautiful filler plant and sparks good conversation when friends wander through the garden and realize that it’s very fragrant.

I browsed online for ways to create an infusion and all suggested cutting up the inner parts of the lemongrass stalk – some suggested chopping it in a food processor, but I just hand cut it. The stalks on my lemongrass were cut a few weeks before I did this project, which make them smaller, drier, and less pliable.  You can see in the photo on the left, the lemon grass just sitting in the jar of freshly poured vodka.  Within two weeks, the spirit took on a beautiful golden hue.

My Lemongrass Vodka has an herbaceous fragrance and taste with just a light citrus background note. I’ve tried a few cocktails with the infusion, including using the spirit in a straight up dry martini with hint of vermouth. I’ve also tried it with a bit of Lillet instead of vermouth. Both options were good. Most recently, I mixed equal parts of Sake and Lemongrass Vodka and served it very cold.  That was also nice — and a little lighter as far as the hit of alcohol from a straight vodka cocktail.

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I ended up with enough Lemongrass Vodka to fill two small bottles – one for my bar and one for a friend who appreciates unique cocktails as much as I do. He and his wife are on a kick now making a lot of Asian cuisine, including Ramen dishes. I’m looking forward to hear how they create an Lemongrass cocktail to pair well with their newfound culinary experiments!

As I look ahead to planning my 2018 garden in the coming months, I hope to find new items to grow to bring to the bar. Perhaps this will even be the year to create an official Cocktail Garden! (Afterall, it would be an ideal setting for the perfect party!)


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#BloominginMyGardenNow

Good-Bye 2017 Gardening Season!

It’s been three weeks since our first hard freeze in southern New Hampshire. Work in the garden has been winding down. It’s time to rake leaves to create more mulch/compost, clean and store delicate statuary and birdbaths, bring in hoses, etc. Planting spring bulbs should be fun, but after a long season, even that project feels like just another chore. (I’ll think differently about that when I have 50 new tulips blooming come spring, though!)

I’ll be honest. I think every gardener needs a winter break – especially following a successful gardening season.

Overall, 2017 was an excellent season. The zinnias were spectacular! We had a decent harvest of fresh herbs and greens, tomatoes, and peppers. The wine cork mulch project far exceeded expectations! And the hummingbirds arrived and departed exactly as expected – delighting us every single day during their nearly 6 month visit.

The were only two disappointments. 1) The lack of peony flowers in June and 2) the ever constant ‘sad, sod situation’ of the lawn. (Planting white clover seemed like a genius idea this spring. I was even bragging about how great the yard looked in May and June. Then ‘Beatrix Potter’ arrived! Our new resident wild cottontail bunny enjoyed the clover in July — eating all the lush green back to the roots. Oh well, I guess everyone needs to eat and that was the only havoc wreaked our new garden visitor.)

And here it is, late November and I’m just sharing some of the 2017 stories now. My original intent with my ‘Garden with Grace’ blog was to document each growing season – in detail. That said, while I’ve had the best of intentions, as well as at least a dozen gardening stories (constantly!) in my head, I’m not as consistent with sitting down to write during the summer months.

Hello Instagram!

Thankfully, I can look back to my photos – especially those on Instagram – to remember annual gardening highlights. I invite you to FOLLOW ME via: https://www.instagram.com/gardenwithgrace/

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I’ve been using #BloominginMyGardenNow for a few years now and never realized that it’s pretty much MY hashtag until a friend in the media called it out for me. (By the way, as a marketing and communications professional, I think that’s pretty cool, and admit that I’d tried to create a hashtag to be my own, it would’ve been a lot more difficult!) 

It’s amazing how a basic mobile phone camera can create such detailed photos of flowers and in some cases, insects. I don’t use any filters on my Instagram photos, so what you see, is what I see. On the days I’m searching for inspiration, I scroll through my Instagram feed to either write, plan for next year’s garden, or just remember past moments in the garden.

So my documentation of each gardening season is, indeed, getting done. Not in the way initially intended or planned, but it works nonetheless….very much like the actual act of gardening, itself.

“Despite the gardener’s best intentions, Nature will improvise.” ~M.P. Garafalo

 


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The Magic Garden of 2017

If our garden had a theme song for the 2017 Gardening Season, it would be “The Magic Garden.” (Specifically, the version by Dusty Springfield!)

It’s been a beautiful and busy gardening season. And while I had the best of intentions to post more stories, there was always another reason to spend more time outside instead of inside writing blogs.

The weather was wonderful (some would say a little too cool at times!) with just enough rain, sun, and warmth to bring us the most beautiful flowers we’ve seen in years. Some of the perennials we thought we’d lost during last year’s drought came back to life and were better than ever, and even the new lawn of clover took in well (the bunny can attest to that!)

Here’s a visual overview of this summer’s Magic Garden!

 

 

“There is a garden
Something like the shadow of a butterfly
And lies beyond the gates of dark and light
And darling, it belongs to me
And when you go there
There will be such laughter in the dimpled sky
The songs I sing
Will drive away the night
The magic garden
Has a way of making you feel free
It’s the place I’ve made for you
From five Players cards and dominoes
And it won’t fall down
And when your dreaming vanishes
Like snowflakes in the summer sky
Melts away in darkness
And you don’t know why the magic garden
Waits with all the gates wide open
And darlin’, I’ll be standin’ just inside
It’s so soft and warm
Behind those hedges
No hard edges
No hard edges
It’s so soft and warm
Behind those hedges
No hard edges
No hard edges”
Songwriters: Jimmy Webb / Jimmy L Webb
The Magic Garden lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

 

 

 


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Garden Hack #2: Wine Cork Mulch

For many, many years, my friends and I saved wine corks – always thinking of all the crafts we would create with them, including wreaths, trivets, tree ornaments. Those crafty days never  really took shape (other than one or two wreaths), even though we always had the best of intentions.

After collecting hundreds (if not thousands!) of wine corks for nearly two decades, it was time to do something or to pass the corks on to someone who would. At the same time, a young paper bark maple tree was planted in the backyard. It needed mulch, but there’s an effort underway in my garden to cut back on bark mulch because it zaps nutrients from plants.

Hack #2: Wine Cork Mulch!

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Suddenly, the idea of Wine Cork Mulch became a reality and good use for more than 25lbs of corks! I just place the corks where I’d normally put bark mulch. It worked out perfectly for the Paperbark Maple planted a few years ago, adding whimsy to a new garden focal point. After nearly three years, the natural corks weathered to a silver-grey, similar to how teak changes color over time. Yes, there are even some plastic corks mixed in – adding tiny splashes of yellow, blue, and dark purple.  Occasionally, on a very windy or rainy day, a few corks may blow or bounce out of the bed, the same happens to bark mulch.

The success of this mulching project resulted in the continued collection of corks to mulch another bed across the garden.

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This spring, we started to mulch the bed that leads to the secret zinnia garden behind the garage. Surely, this big bucket of corks would fill the space completely — or so we thought!

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We were close. But definitely needed more corks to complete this project. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that it’s okay to ask for help. Friends love to help other friends, especially for interesting projects. When I realized more corks would be needed, I simply put out a call to my friends via social media on a Sunday afternoon to bring corks when they visit over the summer.

Within hours, my good friend and fellow gardener, Terri (aka: @TerriinRed on Twitter) stopped by, not with corks, but with unopened bottles of wine that included corks!  A few days later, Liz came over after one of our Friday morning walks with a huge bag full of corks – well over 100 of them! (Liz was featured in one of my earlier Garden with Grace stories when we spent an evening in 2014 Gardening at the Gardener Museum in Boston.) 

The cork mulch has definitely become a fun conversation among my friends in recent weeks, especially as more people drop by to contribute to what I call a ‘worthy cause!’ Most recently, Cathy dropped by to catch up after her vacation to Italy. She brought corks (and a few rocks from Tuscany – for my garden!)

Rosemarie brought over A LOT of corks a few days after Cathy. Like the start of this story, she also saved corks for years for craft projects. However, she did make some good attempts and many of the corks donated by Rosemarie have drill holes! (I love my friends!)

As you can see, I put Cathy and Rosemarie to work to help with the actual garden mulching. (Another benefit of cork mulch over bark mulch is that it’s not a dirty or buggy project!)  Of course, both of these wonderful women were rewarded with a glass of wine!

I’m constantly finding corks in my pockets and purse now! After a visit to other friends’ homes for gatherings like Mother’s Day or an afternoon lunch, instead of bringing home a ‘doggy-bags’ with leftovers, I simply keep the corks, knowing one cork here and another there will add up fast.

A successful cork finding mission took place this week.  During a stop for a drink at MTs Local Kitchen & Wine Bar in Downtown Nashua, a conversation was struck up with the bartender about my Wine Cork Mulching project.CorkMulch-MTs

I shared some of my photos and asked if MT’s kept their corks or just tossed them away. By the time I was ready to leave, I was offered a bag with 48 corks! All are now in my garden. My one regret is not counting ALL of the corks before putting them into the garden beds. (That knowledge would have sparked some interesting conversation when entertaining in the garden — of course with more wine to keep the cork beds full!)

It’s going to take a few more weeks to fill in all the gaps for the latest project, so I’ll keep on my mission to find more corks. And, if you happen to visit MT’s Local in Nashua, the cork from your glass or bottle of wine enjoyed with your dinner just may end up in my garden one day!

I think cork collecting may now be considered an ongoing adjunct hobby connected to a gardening obsession. I’ve already found a new bed to mulch with wine corks. I’m thinking the one with the Wine & Roses Weigela and Summer Wine Ninebark would be ideal!


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Garden Hack #1: Screen Out Seedling Problems

Sometimes, we all need ideas, tips, and tricks to make our work in the garden easier. Over the the past five years, I’ve tried and tested several “Garden Hacks” and want to share the ones that truly work so others may use them too.

My first Hack involves recycling and upcycling. Honestly, there is no better place to engage these practices than in the garden!

Garden Hack #1: Screen Out Seedling Problems

This is my favorite Garden Hack because it was published in Fine Gardening magazine’s February 2016 issue. (There’s nothing more rewarding than your favorite gardening publication validating your tip – in print!) 

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The tradition continues this growing season. Despite a cold, rainy month, my future salad (Black Seeded Simpson lettuce) is thriving in its screened setting.

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Once the seedlings get a little bigger, I’ll remove the screen for a few hours each day, but will cover it up at night to keep out the visiting nocturnal critters. We’re hoping for a first cutting for salad in early June.

Do you have a favorite Garden Hack? Share it with a comment!

 


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A ‘Deep Purple’ Earworm

While walking outside this morning to discover what is #bloominginmygardennow, a song from my preteen years popped into my head —- ‘Deep Purple.’

“When the deep purple falls, over sleepy garden walls, and the stars begin to twinkle in the night…..”

I listened to that song on a Donny & Marie album over and over again when I was a young girl – back at the time of the hit variety show on television in the 70s. (The original was recorded in 1963 by Nino Tempo and April Stevens – which I didn’t know until I looked up the song online today!) 

Decades later, ‘Deep Purple’ takes on new significance for me – especially during the first two weeks of May. As the early spring tulips and flowering trees lose their petals, the purple iris emerges – always at the same time as the lilacs. This year, a tulip that hasn’t come up for many years also appeared this week to round out a trifecta of spectacular deep purple blooms during the first 10 days of May.

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The purple or burgundy iris has been in my garden for 25 years!  My mother brought it home after an early May visit to Uncanoonuc Mt Perennials. Unfortunately, the garden center recently closed after decades of bringing delight to gardeners across New Hampshire. These iris are prolific and have been split every few years to be shared with other gardening friends. (Every year, I hear from at least one other person who is also enjoying these flowers. This week my friends Terri and Ann, both colleagues from Sun Microsystems (who also happen to share the same March Birthday!) reminded me they are also enjoying their annual iris display this week!)

This iris is compact, on a short stem. It’s always the first iris to bloom each spring. It looks especially nice planted with cushion spurge since that is a bright peridot color, blooming at the same time. We lost that companion planting in recent years, so there’s a note for this year’s transplants to make sure the situation is rectified for 2018!

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The state flower for New Hampshire is the lilac. The garden has several established lilacs ranging from a light lavender to this deep purple color. We even have a three year old ‘Sensation’ lilac with a patterned mix of white and dark purple petals. Honestly, you find the lilacs in the garden with your nose before ever seeing them with your eyes.

It’s always nice to see our neighbors walk by, slow down, and then stop to smell the flowers hanging over the fence. There’s no better spring experience than deeply inhaling the intoxicating perfume of lilacs.

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These tulips were some of the last to emerge this spring. They are in a section of the garden that was originally started by my grandfather.  They were a nice surprise this week. I can’t even remember when they were planted, but I don’t remember seeing them the past few years. They certainly round out the trio of the deep purple flowers that will enhance the garden for the next week or so.

I was hoping that sitting down and writing this story about my garden experience today, the earworm referenced in the title would subside.

Apparently, that will only happen “in my deep purple dreams!”


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Spring Awakening

It snowed again in southern New Hampshire over the weekend – about five inches of slushy, heavy snow. The wintry early April day brought a flock of seven Cedar Waxwings to the garden. When they weren’t stripping the few remaining red berries from the holly shrubs, they were huddled in the Weeping Cherry tree.

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Today, it’s sunny and 60 degrees (F) at 4pm. The longer days of sunshine are quickly melting the latest – and hopefully last – blanket of snow.

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While most of the paths in the garden are still white and slippery,  a swath of purple blooms caught my eye when I stepped onto my my front porch to get the mail.

Spring has arrived! The crocus are blooming — just as expected in early April.

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I grabbed my camera and walked through the areas of the garden where sun melted the snow from the stone paths.  (The ground in these few areas is very soft, almost muddy, so I didn’t venture far.)

It’s always a thrill to find the crocus in bloom. While expected, it always feels like the first flowers are a miracle.

The garden still has a brown dormant winter appearance – from the decaying leaves, pine needles, and sticks that will eventually be picked up either by the birds building their spring nests or during the initial hours of our annual spring cleanup gardening day.

No matter how sleepy the garden appears under the latest blanket of snow, Mother Nature does a spectacular job of waking the flowers that typically appear in late March thru early April.  This includes the crocus and scilla.  As soon as the purple crocus start to wind down, the bright scilla open to full bloom to bring new life and spectacular streaks of blue to line the garden paths. I don’t even need a calendar to know when Easter is just two weeks away.  Seeing these two spring flowers in bloom is always the first indication that the Easter Bunny is expected very soon. (And that it’s time to pick up the ingredients to make the traditional Pickled Beet Eggs for the pending holiday.)

While walking through the garden this afternoon, my soul filled with gratitude. Not just the sights of pops of bright color hear and there, but with the sounds of the songbirds who are out, searching for their spring mates.

I felt caught between two seasons – winter because of the snow cover. And, spring with with the early blooming bulbs.  I’d once read a quote about crocus that included the word Grace. That seems like the perfect way to end today’s story.

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“A single crocus blossom ought to be enough to convince our heart that springtime, no matter how predictable, is somehow a gift, gratuitous, gratis, a grace.”

-David Steindl-Rast