Archives for posts with tag: aesthetics

Our vegetables are giving us a visual reminder that the bright reds and greens of summer have transitioned—gradually, incrementally—into the oranges, yellows, and purples of fall.

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A perfect specimen?

What is it about lighthouses that captures the imagination—mine, anyway—and directs it out to sea? Their silent performance of a thankless duty? Their stoic disregard of the extreme marine climate? Their stark but elegant beauty and strong but lean engineering?

Whenever I see one, I immediately start to think about how the beacon might appear to a passing ship or, more appropriately, a boat bound for whatever harbor is nearby. What does the lighthouse look like from a mile or two offshore?

Not much, probably. During the day, details of coastal structures are difficult to make out. A lighthouse may seem immense to someone standing at its base but from afar, even the tallest tower will be dwarfed by the mountains and cliffs that often loom over coastlines.

And at night, all that can be seen is a ray of light.

I can’t recall ever spotting a lighthouse beacon from a boat or ship (truthfully, I’ve spent very little time on water) but I have seen one from afar. A few years ago, we spent a delightful early summer weekend in Bermuda. Our resort was on the southwest coast of the island, facing the North Carolina shore, only a few hundred miles away.

Bermuda is small enough and sufficiently isolated from other places that its night sky is truly dark. Looking out through the sliding glass door of our room early one morning, we detected the motion of a faint beam of light as is it flashed across the horizon.

The source of the light fell well below our view (by several miles, at least), but the sweeping path the ray of light followed was immediately recognizable as that from a lighthouse beacon. It was somehow comforting to see evidence that across the lonely expanse of open ocean lay our home.

Back in the golden days of ship travel, it must have been heartwarming to those returning from a long voyage across the ocean to see a first sign that other people were preparing for the ship’s arrival, that at least one person was waiting up in anticipation.

Nowadays, that comfort is a bit cold. While visiting lighthouses here in Maine (of which there are many, given the state’s craggy shoreline), we have learned that most, if not all, of the facilities are automated. The charming cottages that were once home to lighthouse keepers (and their families, if they were lucky) are now vacant.

Fortunately, there are historical societies and preservation groups such as the American Lighthouse Foundation to tend them and offer tours. And, as we learned at Owl’s Head Lighthouse, the United States Coast Guard still sends someone around to ensure that the lights are in working order so that even if no one is home, someone has left a light on for us.

Last Saturday, Rachel and I made an early spring visit to Stonecrop Gardens (see March 22, 2014). The Open House being celebrated that day focused on their indoor collection, which is extensive, if not encyclopedic; much more than can be described in the average 500-word blog post. In fact, at the end of the last account, having finished our snack (cookies and cocoa) we realized that we were only about halfway through the list of plants on display.

What remained to view (not counting the outdoor areas still covered by snow and ice) were the Alpine House, the End House and the Pit House. Of these, my favorite is the Pit House, and not just for the flowering bulbs and succulents that inhabit it. Architecturally, it is unlike any other greenhouse I have seen.

A long, narrow building, its floor is set into the ground by about two feet; stone steps at each end lead down to its central aisle. The tops of the planting beds along either side are at grade level so all of the soil is essentially subterranean. The gabled glass roof springs from short masonry walls that extend about two feet above grade.

The peak of the roof—this is my favorite detail—is supported by two parallel lines of steel wide flange beams that are aligned with the fronts of the planters, thereby maximizing headroom over the aisle. Structurally, the Pit House is quite elegant (and that’s the nicest thing that I, as a structural engineer, can say about it).

Despite its partial embedment in the earth and glazed roof, the Pit House is not particularly warm inside. Nonetheless, it is cozy, mainly due to its diminutive scale. It feels not unlike a child’s playhouse although clearly, serious work is going on in there.

The beds are literally overflowing with a densely-planted collection of ranunculus, fritillaria, narcissus, primula, cyclamen and helleborus, to name just a few. Although only about a third of the area of the Conservatory, the Pit House contains two-thirds the number of different plants.

We strolled leisurely from one end to the other, enjoying the colorful blossoms that sprang from the garden beds at waist level or trailed along the steel beams over our heads. We left with an infusion of spring spirit and a renewed enthusiasm to get to work in our own garden.

We spent a few hours yesterday (before heading up to Stonecrop Gardens; see March 22, 2014) and again today, cleaning up the ornamental gardens. Saturday’s session was particularly enjoyable because the temperature quickly rose into the 50s. One or two dark clouds passed by, trailing a sprinkle of light rain, but otherwise it was sunny and warm.

Today was a different story as the weather returned to a more wintery state, including a chilling wind.

We cleared away the scruffy remnants of the Russian sage, penstemon (a variety of foxglove), black-eyed Susans, Siberian irises, and hostas. In the main ornamental garden beds, Rachel pruned the hibiscus (we have three) and some young lilacs. Together, we tackled the Japanese maple, a gift from the mason (and natural gardener) who constructed our stone walls and stairs.

We’ve been putting this off for a few years now and I hope that we did not wait too long. The maple had grown taller than we wanted, more upward than outward, and was threatening to obstruct the view from the patio that overlooks it. We clipped its upper branches and the skyward pointing portions of its perimeter branches. It looks a bit awkward now (most things do immediately after pruning) but its appearance should improve once the leaves sprout.

Up front in the hosta beds, we had a bit more work to do. I’m not sure when we last weeded this area (mid-summer, perhaps?) but it was in dire need of it today, especially the bed to the left of the stone staircase that leads from our front yard up to the labyrinth. The grade is steep here and the plantings a mixed bag. We’ve been slowly making a transition to flowering bulbs and groundcovers such as sedum and lily of the valley but mostly, the plants here are unwanted—weeds, by definition—and we removed many of them.

Weeding is very satisfying—the difference between before and after can be striking—but it is also back-breaking. After two hours in the bracing cold we were worn out. The ornamental beds are now clear of old growth and we were heartened by the signs of spring—snowdrops and crocuses at long last!—that are slowly emerging.

I have found that it is too easy to take for granted things that are right under my nose, even things I really like.

That’s the case with Stonecrop Gardens, the public garden and school of practical horticulture located only a few miles from our house. We first visited in 2012 (see March 30, 2012) and, after becoming members, returned twice that year to view the grounds at different stages of growth (see June 2, 2012 and September 16, 2012, part 2).

We were off to a good start towards a goal of touring the extensive gardens (which cover 63 acres) in each of the four seasons (as a minimum). But for a variety of reasons, or maybe no good reason at all, we only managed to get there once last year (see July 27, 2013). We made the most of it, though, and thoroughly enjoyed the eye-popping array of flowers (lilies, most notably) that were in bloom at the peak of summer (I took many photographs). Still, we hadn’t been there since.

Now, granted Stonecrop is closed from November until April (except for special events) and that is one reason why I tend to forget about it. Out of sight, out of mind. But that is also why I was delighted to receive a postcard from them inviting us to today’s Spring Open House. The event is subtitled “Garden Walk Under Glass” because at this time of year, all of the action is going on indoors.

The walk starts in the Conservatory, a glass house built in an English country architectural style. The tower and wings, laid out in a cross arrangement (from above, it looks like a church, a temple to formal gardening), are literally crammed to the rafters with more than 250 potted plants that originate from all around the world, mostly from places with hot to moderate climates.

Each specimen is tagged with a number that corresponds to a printed list. The information—plant name, family classification and country of origin—is interesting (so that’s what a bowiea volubilis looks like!) and useful (can we get camellia japonica at the garden center?). It is also overwhelming, a lot to absorb all at once.

We moved from there to the potting shed (cum office) and passed through it to the Tropical House. In a vestibule to this traditional greenhouse, work was in progress to propagate cuttings from established plants (to supplement the onsite garden beds, I suppose, and to sell). Much of it looked familiar to me—short lengths of stems stuck into growth medium—but I was intrigued by the leaf propagation, a method I had never seen before.

As we exited the Tropical House, we were distracted by the warm cider, hot chocolate and assorted cookies (almost as varied as the plants) on offer in the barn. The day was warm and bright so after making our selections, we parked ourselves on a bench to bask in the sun and nibble our treats.

One of the ways I know that spring has arrived is that for the next few weeks, the sun will shine directly through my office windows. With no leaves on the trees to filter it, the bright light makes it difficult to see the screen of my computer but the solar heat on my face feels great.

Another indicator that spring fever has hit is my desire to get out into the garden and start doing something. The draw is getting stronger every day as more snow melts to reveal another task that needs attending to. This was a rough and stormy winter and consequently, the yard is in disarray. Order must be restored! In other words, it is time for spring cleaning.

Most of our work over the next week or two will be in the ornamental gardens. We don’t do a lot of cutting back in the fall—usually, only enough to facilitate leaf removal. In particular, we leave the black-eyed Susans and butterfly bushes in their bare-branched state to provide decoration and keep the garden from looking too empty. It is pretty, especially against the neutral background of winter white (i.e., snow), but as a result, the gardens are filled with dead wood.

To make matters worse, heavy snow came early this year and buried some of the plants we might otherwise have tidied up in the fall. These include the hostas, Siberian and bearded irises, and day lilies. In other years when we have left them, the faded leaves look crumpled and haggard by spring; this year, being crushed by snow for three months has done nothing to improve their appearance.

The first order of business, then, will be to trim everything back to make room for new growth. Clearing away last year’s detritus will also allow the sun’s warmth to activate the bulbs and rhizomes that have been lying dormant since the fall. In fact, small, spiky leaves are already poking up amongst the matted clumps of spent bearded iris leaves and I spy, with my little eye, a crocus peeking out through the cloud of desiccated Russian sage bushes.

I have some reservations about jumping back into it. Yard work is physically demanding and can be overwhelming (it sometimes feels as if the entire world needs tidying up after winter). But I know that it will also be immensely satisfying, a literal cleaning of the slate as we start the new gardening year.

Finally, a crack in the ice, a fissure in the hard shell of cold that has been this winter.  With temperatures in the upper 40s and a splash of warming sunshine this weekend, winter has moved on, having overstayed its welcome by a week.

It left some baggage behind—there is still more than a foot of snow on the ground.  The continued warm weather will get to work on that, slowly, but it will be another week or two before it is all gone.  The mountainous piles of snow in mall and supermarket parking lots—some of them six feet tall or higher—will take even longer to melt.

The thawing is a reassuring reminder that the seasons do change and that soon enough (or maybe not, for some people) the polar vortexes will recede back into the artic where they belong.  Until then, we must continue to prepare for warmer weather and the outdoor growing season that comes along with it.

Of course, there is nothing yet that can be done outside in the garden.  Indoors, however, plenty of tasks need attending to.  The basil, rosemary and first sowing of lettuce have all unfurled their first set of true leaves.  By now, they have probably used up most of the energy stored in their seeds.  I mixed a little fish emulsion with water in a spray bottle and gave all of them a quick boost.  Not long from now, I will pot them up.

According to the seed sowing calendar, I am a little late starting the eggplant and bell peppers, but only by a few days.  I filled another half-tray with soil mix and planted six eggplant (Black Opal) and twelve bell peppers (six Orange Sun and six Quadrato d’Asti Rosso).  We now have one and a half trays of seeds and seedlings warming on the heating pads.

Gardening is not all glamor and glitz.  In addition to sowing seeds, repotting seedlings, building compost bins, and other photogenic activities, there are less tidy chores that must get done.  For example, before starting on the sowing today, I washed up the small plastic and terra cotta pots that were still dirty from last year’s use.  It wasn’t a pretty sight when I began but it was immensely satisfying to see the results of my spring cleaning.

A couple of weeks ago, I read a gardening article that might be the first one I have ever seen that makes a case for not starting plants from seed (see “Roots and Shoots: How Homegrown Is Necessary?” which appeared in the February 14, 2014 issue of Philipstown.info The Paper).  Pamela Doan’s column does include simple and useful instructions for starting a garden indoors in winter (with an emphasis on tomatoes) but starts off with her reasons why she doesn’t do it.

It’s nice to see someone bucking the conventional wisdom, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it.  I’m a complete believer in starting from seed when possible but I recognize that doing so can seem like a lot of effort.  If the choice were between buying seedlings or doing nothing, I would buy the seedlings (as I did in 2011 and 2012).  Like most gardening projects, however, sowing seeds requires intermittent bouts of close attention—often accompanied by intensive activity—but little effort otherwise.  Once the seed trays have been set up and are safely tucked into a warm and well-lit location, they take care of themselves for the most part.  Only a modest investment of time is needed.  Potting up requires another infusion of time but the task is not much different from setting out, something that must be done whether the seedlings are home-grown or store-bought.

Similarly, the financial investment needn’t break the bank.  Unquestionably, one can spend a lot of money on seed starting apparatuses, depending on size, features and aesthetic appeal.  And the cost of specially formulated grow lights and heating coils specifically designed for seed trays is ridiculously high (a case, I think, of commercial opportunism).  Expensive whistles and bells will not necessarily be of benefit to so basic an operation.  Fortunately for one’s pocketbook, for example, plain fluorescent lights and utilitarian heating pads work just as well as their high-end counterparts.

In fact, as we found out last year (see February 18, 2013), a spacious and efficient seed starting apparatus can be put together for very little money.  Our modified shelving unit (including lights, pads, and seed trays) cost less than $200 and can accommodate 432 seedlings on three shelves (with two shelves left over).  A smaller apparatus would be proportionally less money.

The unit should last essentially forever; there will be no new expenses year to year so the effective cost, amortized over its expected life, is even less.  Further, it can be used for storage off season (a mixed blessing; see January 8, 2014).  Existing shelves similarly modified would be more economical and a sunny windowsill, for those lucky enough to have one, is even cheaper.

The most eye-opening of Ms. Doan’s arguments against starting from seed is her primary contention that most seed companies put too many seeds in each packet.  To her, this means planting more of any given vegetable than perhaps she would like.  The result, given overall constraints of time and space, is a lesser variety of vegetables.  Either that or wasted seeds.

I’ll admit that last year we started more seeds than we needed (72 basil plants; really?).  But that was due to inexperience and pessimism.  With no idea of what rate of germination to expect and a firm commitment to planting only our own seedlings, we erred on the conservative side.  We didn’t let that impact our decisions about what to grow, however.  Instead, we gave away as many seedlings as we could foist off on people and, with some regrets, cast what we couldn’t use onto the refuse pile (see, for example, May 4, 2013, part 2).

The startling part of the surfeit-of-seeds concept, though, is the implication that all of the seeds in a packet must be planted at once.  This notion never occurred to me.  I am frugal (some would say cheap) about many things (but by no means all) and always intended to save the seeds I did not plant last spring to use again this year.  The average seed life is printed on each packet and most are theoretically good for two years or more.

I say “theoretically” because, of course, seed life depends on how the seeds are stored between planting seasons.  We kept our seeds safely inside a small box in the basement.  There, they were protected from light and excessive heat and moisture.  It can get warm and humid here in July and August—and last year was particularly torrid—but the basement is partially underground which mitigates the extreme weather conditions.  The small volume of the box should have further minimized the effects of summer.  (Some would suggest storing seeds in the freezer, as we did with seeds from two years ago; unfortunately, they are too easily forgotten that way, by which I mean that I forgot about them.)  Even after a year, the seeds should still be viable.

So now we’re in the process of finding out whether they actually are.  Our plan this year is to sow fewer seeds of each type of vegetable and, possibly, to plant additional varieties (this would require buying more seeds or, later in the season, seedlings).  So far, we have only planted herbs (six seeds of six varieties) and lettuce (six seeds of two varieties).

The lettuces are sprouting at about a 50 percent success rate while only two herb varieties (basil and rosemary) have germinated.  Herbs are notoriously slow to get started but I should note that all of the herbs except the basil have an average seed life of only one year.  I may be pushing my luck—and the limits of my faith (see February 19, 2014).

Contrary to the Roots and Shoots article, there is more than bragging rights to be gained from growing plants from seed.  It is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to get the garden started and to jump back into the gardening spirit, even in the midst of winter.  And for a control freak like me, it is the only way to grow exactly what I want and to know everything about my plants.  The bragging—and blogging—rights are a nice bonus.

Leaves, leaves, leaves.

In an ideal world, they would all turn bright shades of orange, yellow and pink before falling.  Then, they would take a week or two to gradually flitter down from the trees in whimsical patterns across the sky, presenting a dynamic autumn tableau outside my window, before settling—just so—onto the landscape.  Somehow, the leaves would manage to avoid pathways, cars and rain gutters.

Once nestled artistically on the ground, there they would lie snugly, like an especially beautiful blanket over the hillsides, increasing the aesthetic value of the view as I walk from my house to the mailbox.

Then, in late October or early November, the leaves would gradually and magically dissipate, slowly fading from view, possibly in conjunction with the year’s first snowfall (an ideal version of which might be the subject of a future post).  Their disappearance would coincide nicely with the appearance of new mounds of fresh compost in the previously depleted bins (which, in this ideal world, have already been constructed).

In reality, there is a lot of raking and blowing to be done this time of year (and I still need to build those compost bins).