Soft rains

It’s been a long slow wet spring in the Berkshires.  Temperatures struggle to get out of the 50s by day and sink into frost territory overnight. We’re still waking up to a dusting of snow some mornings. It feels as though we’re stuck in Ground Hog Day and will keep rebooting this unremarkable moment in mid-February forever. Though there is some comfort in the predictable rhythm of repetition right now, the sense of time passing homogeneously within the same four walls for the most part, between the same two people, protected from the jarring dissonance of change. Continue reading

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Spring snow

It snowed in the Berkshires yesterday. Thick lazy flakes drifted down through the late afternoon sky— too wet to stick. We went to bed with the ground outside the color of old shoe leather and woke to a blanket of white. A thin blanket, though, one riddled with the stubble of last season’s garden and pierced by the first green shoots of spring.  Still, it felt like a respite of some kind — like manna, the bread of heaven that supposedly fed the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.

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Skunk hour

http://www.birdphotos.com

One night a few weeks ago, just when we were getting ready for bed, an odor drifted up from the basement — one that is instantly recognizable and universally despised: skunk.  At first we thought the cat had unwisely cornered a member of the mephitidae family (a close relation of the polecat and weasel), but when I went downstairs to investigate, I encountered nothing but that overwhelming smell — as eye-wateringly potent and punishing as teargas. I’ve since learned that the skunk’s noxious scent and teargas are, in fact, both lachrymators — chemical substances designed to irritate the Continue reading

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Forcing bulbs

Photo: Patricia Aakre

There’s nothing quite as welcome in the middle of winter as the sight of blooming paper whites or hyacinths on a sunny windowsill. These bulbs, along with daffodils, tulips, narcissus, and others are easy to force into flower — though what you’re actually doing is tricking them into thinking that winter’s over. And who doesn’t wish for that about now? Watching sprouts push out of the homely little bulbs, shoot up, and explode in a fireworks of musk and perfectly formed flower heads — is to have a front row seat for one of nature’s most accomplished magic acts.

I purchased paper whites in bulk from my favorite on-line nursery (https://www.longfield-gardens.com which also has an excellent newsletter) and gave them away over the holidays with simple instructions: settle them in a tray or bowl filled with pebbles or dirt, give them some sun and water — and then practice patience, as they take several weeks to flower.
Hyacinths can be grown directly in water by using a forcing vase (shown below), kept in a cool dark place for Continue reading

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Journey of the Magi

Murillo's 'Adortation of the Magi' fragment

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’

Of the many subplots of the Christmas story, I’ve always been most drawn to that of the wise men. The bible doesn’t actually specify that there were three of them, just that they brought with them three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We don’t know for certain how many there were — Eastern Christianity has twelve or more in the caravan — or where they came from, though an Armenian tradition identifies them as Balthazar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar Continue reading

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La Serenissima

Venice has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s a city I know well enough to be able to find my way along its cobbled streets and across its marbled bridges with the aid of memory alone.  There’s the Rialto rising out of the mist. A vaporetto puttering into its stop in front of the Accademia.  We spent many Christmases there —  when darkness fell like a velvet curtain and the lights of old palaces glittered in the inky waters. Though outwardly ostentatious and mercenary, Venice has always been a secretive and mysterious place. Many of its most stunning treasures are tucked away in unexpected places: the Carpaccio paintings in the tiny Scuolo San Giorgio degli Schiavoni; the tesselated marble floor, rich and intricate as an oriental carpet, mostly overlooked by the hordes being herded through the Basilica di San Marco; the mismatched pride of lions that guard the entrance to the Arsenale. At every turn, Venice is a visual feast, an alchemy of stone and light and water. And now, of course, far too much water. Continue reading

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Taking down the trees

They were dead. Or dying. Two crab apples that had been strangled by vines.  A great old dark cherry, standing astride our back woods, that had been riddled by insects and then jackhammered by woodpeckers and sapsuckers for so many years that its insides had been Continue reading

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The Light of September

As the days grow shorter and shadows lengthen, the contours of the newly mown field and the sloping shoulders of the mountain ridge come into focus again. Summer’s exuberant abundance — the drifts of phlox and unruly ranks of wild flowers — has given way to a stricter, more measured order. Change is everywhere, though still as gradual as the shifting sunlight. It’s warm enough for the cosmos to keep blooming, but they’re aging beauties now, their desiccated flower heads nodding on thinning stalks. The morning birdsong — Continue reading

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Japanese eggplant

Sleek, thin-skinned, and mild, Japanese (Ichiban) eggplant is an entirely different animal from its larger, fleshier Italian cousin. Obviously, it’s not an animal, but eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, along with tomatoes and potatoes, and therefore classified botanically as a fruit. I put in half a dozen Japanese eggplants early this summer and have been rewarded with a sweet, succulent, almost seedless harvest ever since. Their leaves are a lovely dark green with purple veins, their stems a sticky dark purple, but it’s Continue reading

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Local peaches

These days you can consume most kinds of fruit any time of the year —apples in May, strawberries in November.  Many are shipped in refrigerated trucks and airplanes from around the world and can pass for fresh and edible. But peaches, the most delicate and succulent of stone fruit, don’t travel well.  It’s true that they can be trucked up from Georgia during July and August, but even then they’ll suddenly turn airy and tasteless as paper towel.  The best peaches are local (ours are coming from Germantown, New York), and we’re in that sweet spot— Continue reading

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Bishop’s weed

Look carefully at the photo to the right and you’ll see, nestled between the proud crimson plumes of the two astilbes and surrounded by the delicate leaves  of epimedium and heuchera, the innocuous-looking face-in- the-crowd that is bishop’s weed. Also known as goutweed and snow-in-the-mountain, bishop’s weed is hiding in plain sight in every shady nook of my garden.  It’s a shape-shifter of a plant, insinuating itself into a gaggle of ladies mantle, hovering in the shade of astrantia fronds, trying to fit in — and almost, but never quite — pulling it off.  But pulling is what you’ll do if bishop’s weed gets a foothold in your garden.  Not only does it spread by seed, but it quickly establishes large underground networks of rhizomes, strong as plastic netting and almost impossible to rout out. Continue reading

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Peonies

It’s that wonderful moment in the garden when everything is possible again. The damp chilly spring meant a slow start to the growing season.  But now the freshly minted grass, dew-laden in the morning, is thick and spongy as a bathroom rug. Even the finicky continus shrubs and rugosa roses are showing signs of life— their rows of hard red bumps erupting into leaf overnight.   The great classical orchestra of perennials is assembling, each starting to keep time to an inner music that a gardener, looking out across the greening world, can almost hear. Continue reading

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Dandelions

I’ve always loved dandelions. As a child, I thought they were named for dandy-looking lions — with those round yellow heads and shaggy ruffs.  Though, in fact, the name apparently derives from the French dent-de-lion or lion’s tooth, referring to their jagged leaves.  That doesn’t take away from their whimsical, almost magical appeal. They can be both food (my father
used to pick them for salads) and drink (dandelion wine and as an ingredient in root beer), and they’ve been used for medicinal purposes by the Chinese for thousands of years. Along with forsythia, witchhazel, and daffodils they play in nature’s proudly loud brass section, blaring the news of spring. Continue reading

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Mud time

Mud time arrives in the Berkshires like a bout of anxiety. The clearly defined whites and blacks of winter give way to a queasy beige.  There are downed branches everywhere, hummocks of gravel spewed up by the snowplow.  Everything seems slightly off kilter in
the unforgiving light that lingers too long into the afternoon. The frozen dirt road with its well-defined runnels turns overnight into a quagmire — more dangerous than ice.  One road over from us a car sank to its bumpers in the muck.  It’s impossible to imagine that the world was ever green  — or will be again. And then the first of the chives, thin as cat whiskers, push through the dried mat of last year’s bounty. Continue reading

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