Southern Maine, Season by Season

Friday, March 8, 2019

Garden Planning

Garden Planning

Yup. It's STILL winter.

I've often said that the surest way to know that Christmas is at hand is to count the number of garden and seed catalogs that come through the mail. When the catalog numbers equal or exceed the Christmas cards ... Santa's almost here!

Of course, after the twinkling lights and baubles have been packed away for another year, the "bleak midwinter" stretches out, with hardly any relief until Groundhog Day at the beginning of February. Yes, you can argue that it's actually Carnival season, and the merriment should continue. And it does, in some places  - I think, for example, that the Shetland Islanders have the right idea, as they mark the end of the Yule season with an agreeably insane fire festival called Up Helly Aa (look it up!). But for most of us, January and February and the beginning of March are austere, cold, and somewhat humdrum.

That's when those garden catalogs come in very handy. After all, what we need right about now is a promise of wild color, form, and scent. Something like this:

Tulips and Solomon's seal - a bouquet offered last spring by OffMill. 

Ash Wednesday does not arrive this year until March 6 - quite late! Therefore, the end of February is high Carnival season. It's also time to plan what might happen outdoors when Spring finally arrives.

Lent, of course, means "spring." I astonished one of my friends last week when I told her I was really looking forward to Lent; it's one of my favorite times of the year. Although the lore surrounding the forty days before Easter seems austere, restrictive, and somewhat joyless, it's really all about new hopes and new beginnings ... like spring!

Planning a garden, therefore, is a perfect Lenten activity. First, you must consider the limitations of your available space, as well as the dreams you have for how it might look when it is fully mature. For example, you might wish to plant flowers for cutting, or to plan a cottage garden - perhaps with seeds like these:

Bells of Ireland and Chantilly snapdragon seeds.

These seeds come from two of my favorite seed companies: Botanical Interests, and Renee's Garden. They can be relied upon to provide seeds for an amazing variety of flowers - and also vegetables and all manner of things for the garden. Of course, the only problem is trying to figure out where to plant all of the seeds you end up with after going through their catalogs (online or hardcopy) and choosing ... and choosing ... oh, just one more! I can't be without THAT one!

I'd hate to show you a photo of my box of seed envelopes for 2019. I doubt that a solid two acres would be enough room to permit everything to flourish and bloom widely. But I digress.

I have before published a photo of the book that is my inspiration for planning for my cut-flower garden ... the garden that will, I hope, supply all of the wondrous blooms for OffMill bouquets in the spring and summer months. But here it is again. It's a great read - full of good advice, judicious planning strategies, well-honed experience ... and so many photos of gorgeous flowers that the reader is tempted, over and over again, to just throw in the towel, plant EVERYTHING, and hope for the best. Or just one more!

Erin Benzakein and her amazing flowers. I keep wanting to move to Oregon to be able to grow flowers all year 'round! Or almost.

Seeds are not the only purchases I make when planning a garden. For example, there was this perfectly lovely garden journal on sale:

The beginning of a new garden journal. The tags in the upper left are for curated groups of colored tulips, which I planted in profusion in October. I cannot WAIT to see what those bulbs will produce!!

And there are ... roses. I just love roses. I understand that southern Maine is not the ideal climate in which to produce big, productive rose bushes (that would be Oregon, again ...) and that roses have this penchant for breaking your heart, over and over again. I had a lovely rose garden in Burlington, Massachusetts - a fenced area right by the kitchen door. I actually managed to move a few favored bushes from that garden up to Maine. Only one has survived - it keeps delighting me year after year: the radiant pink Sir Paul McCartney:

Sir Paul. He never fails me.

But one rose bush does not make a garden! I have been captivated by floribundas, but have lately also made room for several David Austin English Roses (my current favorite is the gorgeous apricot Carding Mill) and even some hybrid teas. So - a few new rose bushes will make their appearance, and we'll see whether some already in the ground will survive this long, cold winter.

Learning to plan a garden

Well, there is more (MUCH more!) to planning a successful garden than buying seeds and plants and dreaming of lush rows of flowers and fruits and veggies, sad to say. Whilst the actual labor must wait until the ground is thawed and warmed, there's much in the way of planning - and even building! - that may be accomplished before the snow melts. 

For example, it's a good idea to consider the square footage of your garden or raised beds, and map out (roughly or with some precision) how many of which kind of plant you'll need. Erin Benzakien (from Floret Farm, see above) suggests designing your plots with graph paper (like in my garden journal - but you can just get a graph pad from Staples, too). Once you have your beds plotted on paper, you can begin to think about where best to place plants. It's a good idea to note the direction of the sun, and to use that information to plan where to put taller plants, so they will not shade the shorer ones. 

Then begin to figure out how many plants your beds might hold. Erin maintains that plants can be spaced much closer together than the seed packets say - she spaces annuals about 9 inches apart. Now, it must be said that if you are going to grow flowers or edibles as intensively as this, the soil must be well-amended with compost. It's a good idea, as well, to plan for testing the soil before planting, and adding nutrients as needed. A good layer of compost is a fine way to ensure that your seeds or new transplants are nutritionally supported throughout their lifetimes. 

Erin also suggests thinking in terms of vertical growth - sending vining plants up tuteurs or mesh fences, for example. This allows the plants - and their produce - to be kept off the ground, and makes tending and weeding and picking that much easier. If you opt for this kind of intensive gardening, structures can be designed (and sometimes even built!) before garden season begins in earnest. 

 Remember that many flowers or crops can be grown in containers, too!

But not this. This is a lovely grapefruit from Stockton, California - where we spent a fine long weekend in November.

Valentine's Day

This year, we began the Valentine's Day celebration early, with flowers (some spent roses - still lovely -  are shown below) and chocolates, made for a candy sale at our church. 

                    The assortment, below, includes white
                    chocolate caramel hearts (with edible gold
                    luster), orange ganache dark chocolate hearts
                    with sugar pearls, and raspberry dark     
                    chocolate paillettes with a white transfer design.
                    They were delicious! But I won't (yet)
                    reveal how I made them, mostly because
                    I'm still perfecting the process.

Pimiento Cheese from Sweet Home

On a trip to Washington, D.C. last fall (to join in the celebration of Don and Cindy Roy's National Heritage Fellowship Awards) we were lucky enough to spend several spellbound hours in the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture, and to eat at their superlative restaurant, Sweet Home Cafe. WE were also delighted to find that the restaurant was soon to publish a cookbook featuring their recipes, and it was not long afterwards that I unwrapped a MOST appreciated birthday gift!

Here's a recipe from the cookbook that has become quite popular:

Pimento Cheese:

Soften 1 lb cream cheese, and whisk until smooth. Add 3/4 cup good mayonnaise, and whisk until fully incorporated. To the mix, add 3/4 cup finely chopped jarred pimentos or piquillo peppers, 1 tsp. hot sauce (I used Tabasco), 1/4 tsp. smoked paprika, 1 generous pinch cayenne pepper, 3/4 tsp. kosher salt, 1/4 tsp. white pepper, and stir until well incorporated. Gently fold in 20 oz. sharp cheddar, coarsely grated - the cheese ought to remain quite visible.  Transfer to a lidded container, and let the flavors meld in the refrigerator for several hours.

It is delicious with salted crackers, celery sticks, and apple or sweet pepper slices.

A seasonal arrangement: Single and double daffodils, white flowering quince, crabapple buds, and grape hyacinths.

Another OffMill bouquet. I can't wait until I can make them again!



             Garden time will be here soon! 

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