Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Just Grow It! Anything BUT American Sycamore

Consider yourself warned-today it's all about ranting.

The front of my house faces south.  Sixty or so years ago someone had the good sense to plant a couple of shade trees in the front yard.  Unfortunately one of them was a Sycamore.  Every day as I'm picking up debris or surveying the devastation and wondering how I'm going to find the time to pick up debris I ask myself why one of them had to be a Sycamore.  Why?  Why not a beautiful tri color beech?  Even another sugar maple would have been a better choice. 

Believe it or not at one time I actually had two of these monstrous trees on my quarter acre lot.  Had is the operative word.  Just over two years ago I finally got tired of having my patio and back garden look like crap so I hired a tree company to remove the dual trunk hundred plus foot Sycamore from my back yard.

Beautiful wasn't it?  Don't be fooled.  If you find yourself enamored with them visit an arboretum or stroll through a forest.  Befriend someone who enjoys hours of unnecessary work or who doesn't mind a messy yard and coerce them to plant one.  Or go to Rome.  Imagine my surprise when, on a trip to Italy a few years ago I discovered Sycamore to be the street tree of choice in Vatican City.  Now I know the real reason why the Popemobile is enclosed in bulletproof glass.  Whatever you do don't plant one in your own yard.


Because the back yard behemoth was inaccessible to equipment the tree contractor had to bring in a climber.  I had to dismantle part of a stone wall so a skid loader could access the back garden and remove the house rattling sections of trunk as they crashed to the ground.  In advance of the onslaught I moved as many plants out of the way as I could but had to sacrifice many others.  After the tree guys packed up and left it took weeks to clean up and rebuild the back garden. was worth every cent.  It was the best four grand I ever spent.

When life hands you Sycamores, make Sycamore stumps.

Trust me, these trees are a freakin' mess!  Twelve months of the year they rain bark, branches and leaves all over every surface of your yard and garden.  In the spring you can look forward to noxious anthracnose leaf litter.  In the summer it's bark.  Every time the wind blows, twigs and branches fall like rain.  No way could I treat for anthracnose or completely clean up the litter-the tree is just too big. 

In Sycamoreville, fall arrives in May and lasts through November.  Currently my front garden is covered with dried up diseased leaves.  I'm sick over it, sick of it and literally sick from it.  Anthracnose fungal spores are incredibly irritating and cause instant allergy like symptoms.  Until all the dead leaves are off the tree it makes no sense to clean up so I have to live with this look for over a month.  But maybe not next year.  Compared to the back yard version, the tree in front is smaller and located next to the road so it would be far less expensive to remove.  Even though I'd be dead before anything I plant in it's place would be mature enough to shade the house, I'd like to think that in fifty years some new homeowner won't be cursing me as a tree contractor lines up the trucks and fires up the chainsaw. 

Last October the freak snow storm we experienced in Connecticut wreaked havoc on the Sycamore.  During the night I kept waking up to the sounds of loud cracking and crashing.  When the sun came up I couldn't believe the devastation.  Fortunately my house was spared but my front yard was impassable.  Mature shrubs were crushed and reduced to rubble.  When the bucket truck sent by the power company arrived to trim the remaining branches dangling precariously over the power lines to my house, I was informed in conversation that Sycamores were messy trees.  Ummm...ya think?

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Nursery Crawling Continues

Yesterday we traveled to Connecticut's gold cost to peruse the plant offerings at Oliver Nurseries in Fairfield.  Oliver is a beautiful and meticulously maintained nursery located in the heart of Fairfield County, the wealthiest county in CT.  As you might expect, the selection of annuals is unusual and extensive but they aren't cheap which is why we wait and go towards the end of the month after haunting all the other places.
If you've been following my blog then you know that plant buying isn't just about the plants but also about the food.  In keeping with that theme, our first stop was at Isabelle et Vincent, an authentic French pastry shop and bakery also located in Fairfield. 

The plan was to pick up desserts and stash them in a cooler for later.  If you were thinking easier said than done you would be correct.  Cases of sinfully delectable pastries-I wanted one of everything!  After much deliberation and consideration, the desserts were finally selected and we piled back into the car for the five minute ride to Oliver's.

Even if you think you don't need any more plants, I highly recommend taking a trip to Oliver's.  In addition to the beautiful and well stocked annual display, they also have a full complement of trees, shrubs and perennials.  The nursery is also a display garden planted with unusual well grown specimens.  No shortage of ideas here.

Despite hauling home hundreds of plants over the past few weeks I still managed to find a cartload of stuff I couldn't live without.  Years ago I stopped trying to figure out how this happens and just go with it.

Although we had planned to stop at Twombly's Nursery in Monroe, we decided to deep six that idea and head directly to our lunch spot, Westbrook Lobster.  Westbook Lobster in Wallingford is located in a cool old mill building.  It's nothing fancy-quite the contrary.  The dining room is dark and cavernous but located in the back of the restaurant building is a shady covered outdoor balcony that overlooks the Quinnipiac River.

First things first.  For some it was a Dark and Stormy afternoon but not for me.  Usually I don't drink anything stronger than wine.

But at Westbrook Lobster I toss caution to the wind, and go with a Goombay Smash.  Besides rum I have no idea what's in it but it sure is good.

Whoever created the lobster lollipop appetizer is a genius,  Lobster claws wrapped in phyllo dough, baked, dusted with sugar and served with chili sauce-T O-D I E-F O R!  For lunch I ordered the hot lobster roll.  It was good but instead of real drawn butter it was served with some liquid butter flavored oil substitute.  I'm a lobster roll purist so next time I'll either order something else or ask for real butter.

After lunch we returned to my friend Monique's fabulous garden for a tour.  Monique's garden is one of the best private residential gardens I've ever seen.  Her extensive collection of unusual trees, shrubs, perennials, tropicals, annuals and garden art is magnificent and beautifully designed.

On the wine list was a Viognier left over from the batch we had shipped home from the Kendall Jackson Winery two years ago during our annual garden get together in Napa.  My bottles are long gone.  Monique obviously exercises better restraint.

And finally we were able to sample the desserts from our morning foray to Isabelle et Vincent.  What a beautiful four day kickoff to summer weekend for me.  Does it get much better than this?  I think not.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Container Mania

Container garden design and planting at Idyll Haven is in full swing!  In addition to the weekly destination nursery trips, I'm usually dashing out every day on my lunch hour in search of specific plants.  Since it's not considered polite to count, I have no idea how many containers I have in the garden.  Last year I was told by friends who water for me when I'm away that I had 78.  That's it?  Compared to others I know whose names I won't mention, 78 is small potatoes.  At any rate, containers contribute heavily to the design (and personal enjoyment) of my garden so I make no excuses.  BTW, does anybody know if there's a twelve step program for plantaholics?  No, wait a minute-forget I asked.

I won't lie, extreme container gardening is expensive and time consuming.  During the summer the pots need to be watered just about every day.  Plants need to be pinched or dead headed/leafed on a regular basis to keep them looking their best and to keep the design in balance.  In the spring I spend days and days cleaning and positioning the pots, shopping for plants and designing and planting.  In the fall, everything has to be cleaned up and stashed away.  Plants that are coming in for the winter need to be repotted or prepared for dormancy in the basement.  Every Thanksgiving I declare that next year will be the year I cut back.  Then spring and our nursery crawling trips arrive and my newfound restraint goes out the window.

In the past week I finally started throwing some plant combinations together. For some reason though my creative juices have stalled and the ideas just aren't flowing.  Work has slowed to a snail's pace.  Today I was home but spent my garden time on other projects.  I'm certain I could make a break through if I only had more plants.  Fortunately plans are in the works for more of that on Sunday.

TGIF!  Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend-the unofficial kick off to summer.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Goodbye To An Old Friend

In 2001, Nick and I traveled to Oregon and Washington to attend the annual Portland Miniature Schnauzer Club Schnauzer Walk.  For many years I had been participating in the now defunct Hoflin schnauzer e-mail list.  In 2000 when Nick was a puppy we joined an off-shoot of that list creatively named "The Puppy Group".  The group included a handful of people from all over the country (but mostly from the west coast) who had recently acquired new miniature schnauzer puppies and wanted to chat about them and share experiences.  When the opportunity for Nick and I to attend the Schnauzer Walk and meet some of my new friends came about I jumped at the chance.

At the walk, Nick received an award for the schnauzer who had traveled the furthest but as luck would have it, we missed the whole event,  Due to a nightmare of airline travel snafus we were forced to spend a night in Chicago and the following morning in San Jose before finally landing in Portland.  After visiting with a puppy group friend in Portland we traveled to a beautiful island in south Puget Sound.  CL, our host had invited us to spend the remainder of the week at her vacation home on the island.  CL was "mom" to Midnight, one of Nick's puppy group classmates.

Midnight and Nick hit it off immediately.  For the remainder of the week we relaxed, hung out, went boating...

...and frolicked on a beach in the shadow of Mt. Rainier joined by Midnight's friend, Misty (also an alumni of the puppy group).  Although I haven't seen my west coast friends in many years, we have kept in touch.  A few days ago when CL was proudly posting pictures of her son's graduation from college, I thought about this trip and how much fun it had been.  Nick turned twelve last week-older than CL's son had been when I visited.  Where had the time gone?  How could it be that our puppies were now considered seniors?

Last night I received a message from CL that Midnight had to be helped to the bridge.  Although this news saddens me on many levels and has flooded my mind with memories and thoughts, I'm struggling to put any of it to words.  Sometimes words just aren't sufficient. 

R.I.P. Midnight you handsome boy.  Happy trails.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Matunuck Oyster Bar-A Gastronomical Swoon Fest

In the wild and crazy crowd I run with, no nursery crawl would ever be complete without a stop for food.  And we love food!  Oh do we love food!  We adore food!  We literally swoon over fresh, creative, well prepared food; food that is accompanied by a glass of wine, lively conversation and good friends.  The food doesn't have to be served in a restaurant-we've swooned over many a home made meal.  But when a restaurant is added to the mix, it's got to have atmosphere to qualify the experience as a true swoon fest.

A couple of years ago, we discovered the Matunuck Oyster Bar.  Located on the road to East Matunuck State Beach, it's a convenient fifteen minute drive from Farmer's Daughter making it a perfect choice for post plant purchasing sustenance.  On the outside, it appears to be a casual beach shack where one might stop for a fried seafood platter or a lobster roll.

The restaurant building is relatively small and comfortable.  The only time I choose to eat inside is when the outdoor patio isn't open.  Overlooking the pond where the restaurant owners farm their own oysters, the patio dining area sports plexiglass wind panels.  Propane heaters stand at the ready as a defense against chilly weather.  I'm partial to outdoor dining so in my opinion the patio is the place to be.  Since MOB doesn't take reservations and tends to fill up fast we usually try to get there for lunch right when it opens.  On Saturday we were ten minutes early (not too eager are we?) and were seated promptly at a primo table next to the water.

One gander at the menu and you can see why I don't opt for the fried clams (although I'm certain if you did they would probably rank right up there with the best you've ever had).  Everything, and I mean everything listed on the menu is fresh.  All of the produce is locally grown.  The wine list is surprisingly extensive and many selections can be ordered by the glass. 

At fabulous restaurants like this, I toss moderation to the wind and indulge in every course.  The beet and goat cheese salad is garnished with candied walnuts and dressed with an orange-rice wine vinaigrette.  Calamari is fried to perfection with peppers and capers, tossed with arugula and drizzled with a citrus aioli.  One order of the calamari, in addition to two other appetizers and a couple of salads provided plenty to share for my party of five hearty eaters.

For the main event I chose the scallop special-large, juicy sea scallops baked in butter and white wine with roasted butternut squash, shallots and crispy bacon.  Swooning!  Sides dishes were roasted fresh veggies and potato wedges.  Simple but perfect and plenty for even the most voracious appetite.

Judging by the choices, it was a scallop kind of day.  One of my friends always gets the baked stuffed lobster, generously stuffed with scallops and shrimp.  She claims it's to die for-a slight exaggeration perhaps but you get the idea.  On the next trip it will be my top pick.

Make sure to save room for dessert.  Rumor has it the owner's mother makes all the selections fresh daily.  I went with the chocolate bread pudding served with coffee gelato and whipped cream.  As you might have guessed, one bite into it and I was swooning!

Matunuck Oyster Bar is surprisingly not for everybody.  A quick check of the restaurant review site YELP was overwhelmingly positive but did yield a few negative reviews-mostly by people complaining about the wait or the mandatory free valet parking.  A few were grumbling about the prices.  Perhaps the clam shack appearance leads some to believe that the food is cheap eats.  It's not.  I would classify it as casual fine dining and feel it is reasonably priced for the experience.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Watch out Rhode Island here we come!

Yesterday was the day I look forward to for months.  Our first trip of the season to my favorite nursery for unusual annuals, Farmer's Daughter in South Kingstown, RI, followed by lunch at one of my favorite restaurants, Matunuck Oyster Bar, had finally arrived!  Plant shopping, great friends and fabulous food...not too many days get much better than this!

Where can you find a whole green house filled entirely with coleus? At Farmer's Daughter of course!  Although I've never counted, they claim to carry over one hundred varieties.  Since coleus are the backbone of many of my container designs, I stock up here but no matter how many I buy it never seems to be enough.

The coleus house is one of many greenhouses all filled to the brim with lovely, well grown plants-many of which I can only find at Farmer's Daughter. What's up with that?  Sometimes I wish it was closer, more often I'm glad it's not.

One greenhouse is devoted entirely to plant based garden decor and gift items-lots of cool stuff.

And oh the succulents! Like everything else, the selection is extensive. All of the greenhouses are decorated with container gardens designed to get the creative juices flowing (and naturally to encourage purchase of the plants).

I was in love with this hanging tapestry of succulents but the price tag was a bit rich for something that won't overwinter outside in my zone.

Blue glazed pottery is a personal favorite.

If annuals aren't your thing there are acres of shrubs, trees, and perennials to peruse.  I don't find the selection of hardy plants to be particularly unusual but I usually come across one or two harder to find perennials.

The hundreds of feet of display borders are a must see. Later in the season when all the tropicals and annuals fill out it's spectacular-truly a plant collector's dream.

Somehow I managed to escape with only two cartloads of plants. In the spirit of full disclosure I did add to the carts after this picture was taken.

Later this week when I get some time I'll post about the food.  For us foodies, Matunuck Oyster Bar just as exciting as the nursery.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Score one for Humanity

Last year Tom Ryan published a fabulous book called "Following Atticus" about his remarkable adventures hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with his miniature schnauzer, Atticus M. Finch.  If you grew up Irish Catholic in the Boston area, have ever been owned by a miniature schnauzer, or have spent any time at all "peak bagging" in the Whites, I highly recommend the book.  Even if you haven't I highly recommend this book.

Last fall I attended one of Tom's book signings and had the chance to speak with him for a bit.  I also follow his blog and his Facebook page and we occasionally exchange messages.  A few weeks ago I became aware of an elderly miniature schnauzer in need of rescue in New Jersey.  His name was Will and at age fifteen the poor guy had been dumped in a kill shelter because his family could no longer care for him.  My heart broke.  Although I am no longer able, for many years I used to volunteer with schnauzer rescue groups.  I understand that circumstances sometimes get out of control for people but I absolutely hate to see old dogs end up in rescue.  Hate it!

Anyway, another friend from my old rescue days saw the story on my Facebook wall and decided to repost it to the Following Atticus page thinking that with over 6000 followers maybe someone would want to adopt Will and give him the opportunity to out live whatever time he had left in a loving home.  Never did we expect the adoptive home would be with Tom and Atticus!  Tom is a gifted writer.  After reading his blog post this morning I just had to share.  Follow the link below to Tom's blog and read about his new adventures following Atticus and now Will.

The Adventures of Tom & Atticus: Following Will: William two weeks ago. Two weeks ago I was in Eastern Mountain Sports looking at child-carrying backpacks.   You see, Atticus and I wer...

Thursday, May 17, 2012

T G I F (for me)!

Tomorrow is a vacation day.  Once again I have a full weekend planned and need to get some extra time in the garden.  I love taking Fridays off and often do in April, May and June just to catch up on the home front.  For some reason I am so much more productive on days like this-or at least I feel more productive and that's good enough for me.

Workouts made a comeback this week-at least as far as lifting goes.  Still no yoga or cardio but I'm OK with that for the time being.  As long as I eat relatively clean and lift heavy and often I should be be able to stay in a healthy lean holding pattern through the summer.

After a few local nursery runs at lunchtime this week, the plant inventory is piling up.  Saturday is the the big trip to my favorite tender plant nursery in Rhode Island so I need to make some room.  Often I get asked why I travel out of state to buy plants when there are so many great local nurseries.  Although I do frequent the local joints on a regular basis I find them lacking when it comes to the unusual annuals and tropicals that have pretty much become the backbone of my garden.

Aside from a little puttering no garden work was on the agenda tonight.  A little wine, a nice is pretty damn good!  I'll hit the ground running in the AM.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Just Grow It! Colocasia esculenta 'Diamond Head'

When designing mixed containers I always start with one centerpiece plant, often referred to by container gardening aficionados as the "thriller".  List topping thriller choices in my containers include bananas, elephant ears, cannas, fountain grasses, and acalphas.  If I was asked to choose a favorite though it would have to be elephant ears-Colocasias and Alocasias.  Despite their popularity in my garden, even the more common varieties of Colocasia like 'Black Magic' and 'Illustris' can often be difficult to find, and expensive.  Unfortunately I haven't had much luck wintering them over so I always grab them when I see them in the spring and buy more than I think I'll need (as if it's possible to ever have more elephant ears than one needs). 

A couple of years ago I was strolling through my friend Monique's fabulous garden with a glass of wine when I was stopped dead in my tracks by a huge gorgeous mass of glossy deep purple foliage undulating in the summer afternoon breeze.  Like a beacon is was guiding me across the garden, beckoning me to come hither.  Even from a distance I could tell it wasn't 'Black Magic'-but what was it?  I just had to know.  And more importantly where could I get one?

As it turned out, it was a variety of Colocasia I had never heard of called 'Diamond Head'.  Monique found it at some obscure back road garden center she happened to pass on the way to somewhere else.  Believe it or not but we often find unusual plants by stopping at off the beaten track roadside stands and seasonal greenhouses.  Unfortunately she was only able to get one plant that year.  Last year I was finally able to find it for sale.  In mid May I purchased a teeny plant in a 4" pot and planted it in a mixed container along my back border.  The picture below was taken June 30th.  It was already a star.

On October 6th, despite taking a bit of a hit from Hurricane Irene at the end of August, the plant was a monster and still going strong.  A definite winner!  In late fall, I dug it out of the pot, tossed it in a plastic bag in the basement for the winter, watered sparingly and crossed my fingers.  By some stroke of luck it survived to grace my garden another year!  So...we have luscious bold foliage and season long interest on a focal point plant-star qualities in any garden.  Just grow it!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Happy Birthday to my Main Man!

Were you actually expecting to see a human face here?  Happy Birthday to my Nickster, mommie's bestest boy!  Twelve years old today.  How time flys.