Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Vintage Roses: A Living Museum

Zephirine Drouhin covers a trellis bench in our cottage garden in Newburyport, Massachusetts. 
Many years ago, when I was creating my very first rose garden, I discovered a wonderful nursery where I could indulge my love of old garden roses.  My love affair with Zephirine Drouhin and Cardinal de Richelieu, two of my favorite bourbon and gallica roses respectively, began with my first order of roses more than two decades ago from Vintage Gardens in Sebastopol, California.

My first rose garden was small and I could only fit a few of the vintage beauties in the narrow area where roses thrived in that garden. 

A decade later, when Steve and I married and planted our first rose garden in Newburyport, once again I looked to Vintage Gardens for the beautiful old garden roses that were well-represented among the more than 280 roses we eventually cultivated there.

Roses growing in the shade, under pine trees, behind our waterfall in our Massachusetts garden.
In our New England Garden, roses thrived in some of the most difficult conditions roses can experience on the planet:  scorching, humid summers, frigid winters, the floods of early springs, and then of course, only someone who truly "loved" roses would even try to grow them in the shade, under evergreens!   Yet, the hill behind our water garden and koi pond was covered with double red and pink Knock-out Roses, Jacob's Coat, and The Fairy (not visible in this photo).
 New Dawn and Peggy Martin  at the entrance to our formal rose garden in Massachusetts
Fast forward another decade and my husband was offered a position in California's Napa Valley. We left our beautiful New England garden behind to move to a location where we could garden and grow roses for 10 months of the year. 

Knowing that we would be living in the Napa Valley, I was excited at the prospect of making a trip to Sebastopol to personally choose roses for my new garden but when I went to the nursery's web site I was shocked and dismayed to learn that the nursery was closing just as we were relocating to the area.

On the web site, I found links to the Friends of Vintage Roses and joined.  If we couldn't hand pick the roses that would someday grace our garden, at the very least, Steve and I could offer some financial support and volunteer to help preserve the collection.

The Friends of Vintage Roses is a group of dedicated volunteers that grew out of a similar group of rose enthusiasts who were regular volunteers at the original Vintage Gardens nursery for many years. 

Gregg Lowery, Curator of the Rose Collection*
Vintage Gardens was the physical embodiment of Gergg Lowery's and Phillip Robinson's shared passion for all roses but especially the rare old garden roses.  Their labor of love eventually resulted in a collection that at one point consisted of 5,124 named varieties of roses that comprised the most extensive collection of vintage roses in the world. 

Rose stock from Vintage Gardens was shared with botanical gardens in both the US and abroad, and was also provided for DNA studies both here and inFrance and Japan.  Dr. Yuki Mikanagi at Kobe University in Japan used roses from the Vintage Gardens for her research into rose pigment research and roses were also provided for the the Noisette and Tea studies conducted by Dr. Nancy Morvello at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. 

The collection is regarded as the most comprehesive and complete collection of  Hybrid Perpetuals, Bourbons, Gallicas, Hybrid Chinas, Teas, Noisettes, and Chinas in North America.  The old Hybrid Teas include an extensive group of Pernetianas that is probably unmatched in any other single public or private garden.

After the retail nursery closed in 2014, in order to preserve and maintain the extensive collection of roses that was established by Gregg Lowery and Phillip Robinson, the Friends took ownership of the roses and created a non-profit organization to in effect, create a living museum of the roses.

The long term goal of the Friends is to once again have the roses growing in a setting that can be open to the public and at the same time able to provide specimens for research and for other other botanical gardens around the world.

The volunteers continue to meet once or twice a month at the garden's current location on Pleasant Hill Road in Sebastopol for "Dirt Days", where they work under the guidance of  Gregg Lowery, a luminary in the rose world and one of the founders of the original collection.  Gregg has remained closely involved with the roses and currently serves as the curator for the collection.  Volunteers assist with pruning, weeding, feeding, tagging, and inventorying the many rare and historically important roses. 

For volunteers, working with the vintage roses is an opportunity to ask questions and learn about rose culture from one of the most experienced and knowledgeable rose gardeners in the world.  For Steve and me, being immersed in such historically significant roses and having an opportunity to listen to the conversation of experienced rose gardeners is both educational and inspiring.  As much as we know about rose pruning and cultivation, working next to such talented volunteers is always such a treat for us.  We always come away with pearls of wisdom from those who have done this for decades longer than we have. 

Volunteers gather with Gregg, ready to fertilize, weed, prune, and tag the roses.
As important to us as the educational aspect is, what I truly enjoy about these days is the opportunity to actually see and in many cases, smell, some of the rarest of the rare....  roses that few of the large public botanical gardens can boast among their collections.  To experience these roses is to experience history.

The current location of the collection is still in Sebastopol and many of the roses are cultivated in containers, in part, because it's easier to protect them from gophers and other critters, in part to make it easier to feed and water them, and in part to make it easier to move the collection, alluding to the possibly temporary nature of the current location. 

Shakespeare Garden, an Eglantine Rose*
The collection is regarded as one of the best and most extensive in the world and has provided cuttings of rare roses to botanical gardens around the world as well as DNA samples of roses for research into the history of the different lines of old garden roses. Indeed it is  treasure that deserves to be supported and maintained.

Every time we volunteer, we see roses that we might never see in any other venue, roses so rare they may exist in only a handful of gardens around the world. The rarity and importance of these roses can't be understated.

If you would like to support the maintenance of these wonderful roses you can send a financial donation to The Friends.  Help in the garden is always needed and assistance on "Dirt Days" is welcomed graciously.  You can contact Carolyn Sanders, director of volunteers, through the Friends web site to register and to get the updated schedule of dirt days and events.

A fundraiser is currently scheduled for this coming Sunday, May 3rd, to help offset the financial costs of maintaining the roses.  The fabulous garden at Terra Bella Vista, a privately owned collection of 450 roses owned by Susan Feichtmeir will be open to the public from noon to 4 PM.  A $20.00 donation per person will gain you entrance to the garden and the silent auction of artwork and roses that is scheduled to take place from noon to 2 PM.  All funds will benefit the Friends of The Vintage Roses' costs to maintain the Lowery-Robinson rose collection.  You can see the entire flyer HERE.

The entire flyer is available on the Friends web site.*

Do check the Friends website for other upcoming activities.  Click on "Upcoming Events" on the group's Home Page.
Carolyn Sanders, Volunteer Coordinator
Volunteer activities are under the direction of Carolyn Sanders who schedules the "Dirt Days" and sends out communications and reminders to volunteers.  She is also volunteer extraordinaire and has been for some time.

Many of the volunteer activities require no specific knowledge of roses (weeding the beds and pots, for example) and Carolyn, Gregg, or one of the other volunteers is always avaliable to answer questions. 

If you ever wanted to learn about roses and their care and cultivation, volunteering at the Friends rose garden is an excellent opportunity to be able to not only help out this worthy cause but to feel comfortable around these easy to cultivate plants.  Many people are under the mistaken impression that roses are hard to grow.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Growing in pots, in a part of the country that has been subjected to a multi-year drought,
This weekend, we worked hard to make certain that the roses were adequately tagged.  Each rose has a tag attached to it, and then another one or two handwritten (in pencil on plastic) tags is added to the pot.  It's amazing how often these get displaced.  Accurate identification of the roses is crucial to the integrity of of a collection of this many rose specimens.

Tags are placed both on the roses and in the pots, to include the name of the rose cultivar, classification or group, and year the rose was introduced.
The chance to interact one-on-one with a rose expert of the caliber of Gregg Lowery is a special perk for volunteers.
Some of the roses are in the ground but many are clustered in pots.  One of our tasks last fall was to dig up and put shrubs that had been attacked by gophers.  While some volunteers were weeding and pruning, other volunteers added fertilizer and tags to the pots. The pots are not ideal, but they will protect the roses until the beds can be adequately fenced against rodent pests, an expensive proposition for a garden this size.
Some of the roses currently in bloom at the garden.  The fragrance is indescribable.

One of my favorites of the roses in bloom this past weekend.  I meant to go into the row between the pots and check the label and we were so busy, I forgot!  Maybe one of the of the volunteers will help me out.  The sun washed out the color somewhat...  the subtle soft shades of rose and mauve brushed with yellow and ivory at the base of each petal were absolutely stunning.

While we were there this weekend, blooms were everywhere.
Comtesse de Rocquigny, a Bourbon rose in the collection*

Gourdalt, a Bourbon rose in the collection*

Visit the Friends of Vintage Roses.

*Photos courtesy of the Friends of Vintage Roses
All other photos copyright Cathy Rose

Monday, April 21, 2014

It's Almost Time for Roses - Share your Knowledge with New Gardeners at Your Local Garden Center

If you enjoy talking about roses and sharing your knowledge and love of roses with others, you might consider volunteering at a local garden center this spring when people will be shopping for roses to plant in their gardens.

I am amazed at the number of people who won't even consider planting roses because they are convinced that roses are labor intensive, for expert gardeners only, and uncommonly hard to grow.  I've heard every complaint.  "They're too finicky."  "They never do well for me no matter what I do. "  "They're just too much work and too hard for the average person to grow."

Probably the most pervasive misconception is that growing roses is labor intensive. "You need to be out there taking care of them constantly, don't you? I mean, they have to be fed, sprayed, deadheaded every day! Why do you think only retired people grow roses?  No one else has the time."  Of course, none of that is true and these same people are out there weeding and deadheading their petunias and peonies without giving it a second thought.

We live in New England on the northernmost coast of Massachusetts.  We are zoned 6b "officially" but that is based in part on averages.  The reality is that despite an overall tendency toward milder weather during the winter months, winters here can range from zone 8 warm to zone 5 harsh.  We usually see more ice storms than snow, which would be protective of the garden, providing moisture and insulation from harsh drying winds.  Gale force winds and nor'easters are frequent and can be hard on any garden plant, not just roses.  Summers bring heat and humidity, droughts, 90+ degree heat waves with 90+ percent humidity, downy mildew, Japanese Beetles, and the dreaded blackspot.  No question: there are much easier climates in which to grow roses.  There are also literally hundreds of roses that not only survive here, they thrive here, often despite a fair amount of benign neglect.

When I am able to get to the bottom of what it is that has given someone such a negative impression of roses, what I almost uniformly learn is that the wrong rose was planted the wrong way in the wrong spot (for that rose, in that yard).  And if I take the time to explain how a rose should be planted in New England (much different from how it would planted in California) and help them to choose the right kind of rose for the location where they intend to plant it, they are not just going to be successful at growing roses, they often will become avid rose enthusiasts. Who couldn't learn to love a rose?

In the spring, my husband and I volunteer in the rose yard at local garden centers to answer questions and give advice about choosing and growing roses.  We ask the customers what kind of rose they're looking for (a shrub, a climber, or something to grow a particular way in a particular area), what colors they prefer, whether or not fragrance is important to them, and what the area where the rose will be planted is like (sunny, shady, inner city, on the beach, under pines).   We take the time to educate them about the different rose classes, basic rose care, and what kinds of roses will grow best for them, based on how they describe their yard and what they tell us they are looking for.

Knockouts and Joseph's Coat blooming under pines in moderate shade
We will walk through the rose yard with them, showing them options, answering their questions and asking many of our own. This helps us to know how comfortable they are in the garden in general and how much guidance they may need to get started.

Sometimes, no matter what we say, someone is determined to try a rose that probably wouldn't work as well for them as another variety or worse, may be totally inappropriate for their yard.   After we explain our concerns about that particular rose in that location, we do our best to suggest ways that they can mitigate the negatives and support the rose so they can be successful.  Sometimes you have to think out of the box (literally).  But there are roses that will grow in the shade near pines if their cultivation needs are met.

One they've selected a rose, we show them how to position the graft when they plant it and how to prune it.  We also teach them how to care for it through all four of our seasons.  We have a recipe for a totally natural spray that we share for those who want a chemical free garden.  If they prefer, we recommend products available in the garden shop or hardware store that are effective and environmentally friendly.  We also give them information about the local rose society.  We encourage them to join the group but even if they decide not to, our local rose society will respond to questions from any gardener about growing roses and a rosarian will make a house call to help them with their rose problems, whether they are members of the organization or not.  

Often, people will come to buy a rose without having prepared a bed (usually without the first idea about how to do that) or even knowing precisely where they want to put it.  Once we have a sense of what their yard is like we can help them think through the best place to plant.  Then we explain what roses require,  soil amendments they will likely need, and how to get the area ready for planting. 

We have found that when an inexperienced gardener purchases a rose before they have decided on and prepared a place to plant it, there is an extraordinarily high risk of failure so we encourage them to prepare the are before they actually purchase the rose.
If there is no existing flower bed for the rose, and especially if this is a first time homeowner putting in a flower bed for the first time, they tend to significantly underestimate how much time and effort goes into creating a place where any plants, not just roses, will thrive.  And if they are busy building a flower bed, chasing toddlers, and working full time, it's easy to forget to water their new plants.  If the rose is left sitting in a "nice sunny spot" without water, by the time the bed is ready, the rose and any companion plants they might have also purchased are dead.  So if we are working with someone who is very new to gardening, we encourage them to prepare the location first and come back the next day or even the next week for the rose.  We write down the names of the available roses that they liked and that we thought would do well for them so that when they return, they know what to ask for.

We try to get to the rose yard well before the garden center opens its gates to the public not only to familiarize ourselves with the available rose stock but also to scout out companion plants.  We will usually grab a couple of large garden carts and load them with a variety of our favorites and have them on hand to show people how they will look together.

Many people who are gardening for the first time don't know the names of a lot of annuals and perennials, so rattling off a list of plants is of no value.   We show them the cart and chat about what plants work well together and why.   We have a printed list of suggestions for good companions in the garden that they can take with them as they shop.  They are welcome to take plants off the cart or meander through the nursery, list in hand, to select their own. 

Sometimes people will show up in the rose yard with a leaf or blossom in a baggie, hoping to get advice about a problem they're having.  Last spring, this area saw a larger than usual infestation of the rose sawfly.  We were able to reassure people that their roses would be okay and we gave them easy instructions for battling this nuisance.  If we can't identify a problem, we refer them to a more experienced rosarian or suggest that they request to have someone come out from the rose society to diagnose the problem and explain the options for dealing with it.

Rose food companies will often give sample food packets to give out when people purchase new roses and we distribute those along with advice for when and how often to feed. 

Occasionally we participate in special "Rose Days" sponsored through our local rose society, but since those usually happen only once a season and not at every garden center, most of the time we work out a schedule directly with the nursery manager at a nursery close to our home.  We try to be available for several hours on multiple days during the months of May and June and sometimes even into early July if the gardening season has been delayed by weather.   We really enjoy it when someone who was dead set against even considering a rose leaves with one or three or more.  And when they come back to share their success, it's even more rewarding for us.

When we volunteer, we generally dress in 19th or early 20th century period attire.  Since we are vintage dancers, our period costumes serve double duty.  The nursery workers and customers get a kick out of it and it makes it easy to find us.  The staff need only point in the direction of the rose yard and tell them that "You can't miss them - they are the ones wearing funny clothes."

Of course, to be able to give advice, you need to know your roses.   We currently grow 280 in our home garden but over the years, we've grown a majority of the most popular ones and many of the less well known ones at one time or another.  We read rose catalogs and rose and gardening books all winter, visit rose and botanical gardens extensively - it's our favorite way to spend a free weekend - and attend educational programs that appeal to us as well.   We also prepare for our volunteer stint by asking for nursery's rose list ahead of time so that we can read up on any new rose that that we're not familiar with and check with our rose friends to get feedback on their experience with it.

One of the things that frustrated us the most both as consumers and especially when we first started volunteering was that too often, the "best" roses for many of the issues we have to deal with in our area were not available at the local garden centers.   As seasoned gardeners looking for very specific shrubs, we usually acquire roses through mail order companies.  Even this early in the season, the most sought after and hard to find roses are often sold out of the on-line nurseries so we typically order in fall or early winter for a spring shipment.

Someone who is shy on gardening experience will go first to their local garden center or to the local big-box home improvement center, trusting that the roses offered for sale are appropriate for this area but that isn't always the case. 
Mauve and lavender roses often have a strong citrus fragrance.
This is a problem we have experienced as consumers as well as volunteers.   The roses sold here are typically ordered through regional  distributors who are located far south of here and then trucked in from several hours (and several hardiness zones) away.  Many of the roses that can be grown on Cape Cod, New York and New Jersey, or farther south into the mid-Atlantic states are not going to do well where we are on the on the north Atlantic coast.

"Sterling Silver" is a classic example.  The first true lavender and one of my long time favorites, they are simply not hardy in our micro-climate.  I can't resist it but I've learned to grow it as an annual and cheer if I get a second year out of it.  There are newer, hardier, and more disease resistant mauve and lavender roses out there, Blue Ribbon (my favorite lavender next to Sterling Silver), Kordes' Silver Star, Fragrant Plum, Wild Blue Yonder, and Angel Face being but a few.  All are star performers this far north but are rarely available in local garden centers.     

I'm not a sales person and when I volunteer, I'm there not so much to "sell" roses but to "share" my knowledge and enthusiasm for growing them.  I don't feel comfortable recommending roses that I personally have not had a lot of success with or that I am not confident will do well in our particular micro-climate.  So if I look over the stock and see that most of the available roses are zoned for zone 7 or higher or they have failed multiple times in my garden, my day is off to a bad start.  I don't feel compelled to push a rose I am certain will not do well and I will give the customer a list of roses that I am confident they can be successful with.

A few years ago, I mentioned this conundrum to a rose manager and when it was time to reorder for the current season as well as for the following spring, he gave me the list of roses available through his main distributor and asked me to make recommendations.  I marked each rose on the list as either first choice (will do well in our geographic area and climate and will out-perform
others in the same category), second choice (reasonable alternatives if the first choice is out of stock already), or don't buy (they aren't going to do well and please don't ask me to encourage people to buy them).  I also jotted a note explaining why I ranked it the way I did - it's strengths, weaknesses, and particular attributes or problems.  Yes, it was time consuming - it took me an entire weekend - but it was time well spent.  I was delighted to see that he took my recommendations to heart when he ordered roses after that.

Most of the nurseries that I and my fellow rose society volunteers work with value our gift of time and expertise to their customers and will go out of their way to make us feel welcome and appreciated.  When we arrive, they usually have already moved lawn furniture and umbrellas into the rose yard and we're greeted warmly by all the staff, since our recommendations for companion plants (which we also share with the staff handling annuals and perennials) help them enormously.  They generally offer not just volunteers but all of the members of the local rose society a discount on plants and merchandise, and we leave planting instructions, rose care guidelines, and brochures for the rose society for them to distribute when we aren't there.  They know that their customers have access to expert advice through our group on an ongoing basis.

Working closely with a garden center manager has another advantage in that they are often willing to take orders from those of us who volunteer when they're sending in their end of summer rose orders for the next growing season.  We are able to get roses that they may not wish to stock but that are available through their distributor.  Sometimes they even take a cue from our choices and add them to their regular inventory.  Not only do they usually give us the roses at a discount, which is a considerable savings for us, but we have been able to acquire roses that we have had considerable difficulty obtaining even on-line.

But for us, the best benefit is less tangible.  By demystifying roses for the less experienced gardener, we have provided innumerable new gardeners with options and advice that comes from our many decades of experience and failed efforts.  To see a customer enthusiastically embrace adding roses to their garden is exceedingly gratifying and when they happily report back the following year that their plants have thrived, well, that makes all the time spent that much more worthwhile for us.

If you decide to share your love of roses: 

1.  Call early in the spring (April, here), before planting time, and arrange to meet the nursery manager and the person who is in charge of roses.  Describe your garden (or better yet bring pictures) and your experience.  Talk roses with them.  They have to know that you know what you're talking about if they are going to entrust their customers to you.

2.  Encourage the manager to post on their web site and hang signs at the garden center letting customers know when "The Rose People" will be there to answer questions and give advice.

3. Work out a reasonable schedule to volunteer.  We try to visit one to two weekends a month in May, June, and early July.  That still gives us plenty of time in our own garden.

4. Weekend mornings work best for everyone in that we capture the majority of new customers without tying up our entire weekend.  We like to get there at least fifteen minutes before the garden center opens so we can get a quick look at the available stock and we stay through the lunch hour, usually until 1-2 PM.  We try to keep the day relatively open so that we can stay longer if the rose yard is crowded with costumers.   

5.  Be prepared to be flexible though.  The garden centers will usually call you early in the day if there is a rain-out so they can post on their web site and at the shop if they opt to postpone due to inclement weather.   However, rain does not always deter the customers!  After cancelling because we were having relentless downpours, I got a call mid-morning that quite a number of people had shown up anyway, just for the rose talk.  My husband was off running errands but a friend (not even a gardener!) had come by to visit so we drove over to the garden center.  They brought some roses and folding chairs into a greenhouse and despite the weather, we had one of our best and most fun days talking roses.

6.  Invite other rosarians from your local rose or garden club to join you.  It can get busy, especially if it was advertised that you are going to be available on a certain date and time, and as word gets around that you're there on a periodic basis.  We almost always plan to be there two days in a row.  It's amazing how many people will come and speak to us, take our information, thank us, and leave without buying a rose, and then come back the next day to make their purchase.  We make a point of telling customers that we'll be there the next day as well, and many will return with neighbors, friends, and family who also have questions or want to know more about growing roses.   

7.  Wear (or at least bring) a hat and comfortable shoes and dress in layers.  Don't forget to pack sunscreen and bottled water or your favorite hot weather beverage.  At the nurseries where we regularly volunteer, they set up an umbrella table and chairs in the rose yard.  One garden center will sometimes bring a cart of gardening books, rose food, pruners, gloves, and garden sprays to the area since their sales staff is readily available to process sales of plants and gardening accessories in the yard.  People enjoy sitting down and chatting about their gardens.  Being able to show them what a by-pass pruner is and having the products that they need readily available benefits everyone.

8.  Have lists of available roses ahead of time so you can know what's in stock and be able to read up on anything new that you aren't familiar with.  Have a current rose guide tucked in your bag (or a smart phone) so you can look something up on the fly. 

9.  We developed handouts showing techniques for planting and pruning, and general rose care that is specific to our area.  Many of the roses sold locally are tagged with instructions for growing them in much warmer climates.  Be sure to explain this to the customer.  Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know but I'll have someone who does get in touch with you."

10.  Know the best and most readily available companion plants in your area.  If the garden center allows it, bring some into the rose area for novice gardeners to see and choose from.  

11.  Get permission from the garden center first, but if it hasn't already been done before you get there, organize the shrubs by rose class.  If help is available, either a staff person assigned to the area or other volunteers, we also try to organize by color and fragrance as well.  There is nothing more frustrating than knowing you saw the rose the are asking for around there "somewhere". 

12.  Bring your own garden pruners and rose gloves.  Be prepared to deadhead and "pretty up" the stock both when there is a lull in the foot traffic and when you're actually demonstrating proper pruning techniques to a customer.  Sanitize your tools before you bring them to a garden center and also before you use them in your own garden again after you have volunteered.  We typically sanitize with either rubbing alcohol or a dilute bleach solution.  Alcohol has the advantage of evaporating and drying quickly.

13.  And finally, engage the rose yard staff in the process.  Include them in discussions with customers.  When there are lulls, chat about their favorite roses or experience with roses and rose problems.  Many are intimidated to have someone with so much knowledge there for the day and they may be shy about asking questions.  But they will be the resource people for the customers when you aren't there, so leaving them with your gardening pearls as well as extra handouts will make their job easier all week long.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Kitchen Garden Recipes: Fennel

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is not something I'd had much experience with either in my garden or my kitchen until a few years ago.  Although I have always been a fan of licorice, it was hard for me to conceive of a way to use an herb that has a mild anise flavor reminiscent of licorice candy in savory cooking.  And since I'm allergic to seafood, one of the more common pairings with this herb, it just never made my top twenty herb list.  On the rare occasions when I needed fennel seed for a recipe, I used seed that I purchased in small amounts at a local specialty foods market.

Several years ago we added the Copper Leaf variety of  it to our herb garden - more for it's beautiful foliage than for any plans to actually use it in cooking - but it never performed well, and when it failed to sprout one spring after having struggled for several years, we didn't replant.  

Fennel bulbs - in the supermarket the roots are removed.
I'd seen fennel bulbs in the supermarket and had watched Chef Ann Burrell prepare it on television. But I still struggled with the idea of a licorice-flavored vegetable as a side dish.  I had little interest in working with fennel as a vegetable until we received several large bulbs in our organic vegetable farm share.  After researching ways to prepare it, I combined several suggestions from other chefs into my own personal version of caramelized fennel.  Overnight I became a fennel devotee, as did everyone in the family after I served this wonderful vegetable as a side dish.

Learning to properly cut fennel was Job One.  The instructions I found ran the gamut from using the entire bulb and lower portions of the stalk to cutting out the core of the bulb and using only the "best" part of the plant.  I read several articles that suggested the stalks and core could be tough and opted to go with a more drastic approach to the bulb.

Fennel from the farm came with the root still attached.  We had had a cold and rainy summer so when it was harvested, the bulbs were smaller than what I'd seen at the local market.  

The first time I prepared it, I used only the bulbs in the farm share. I was experimenting and didn't know how much cooked vegetable they would yield, nor how receptive my usually vegetable-avoidant husband and son would be to this new addition to our menu. 

I was not prepared for how warmly received this "new" (to us) vegetable was.  When I prepared it again, I added store-bought bulbs to those we received with our farm share.

Cutting the fennel requires a very sharp knife.  I personally favor a boning knife that I sharpen with each use.  It allows me to easily carve out the core at the base of the bulb, trim stalks, and slice the bulb.

The first thing I generally do is cut off the stalks and roots.  I reserve some of the best branches of the fine, feathery foliage to add to the bulb during cooking.  

The core can comprise a large portion of a small bulb so choose the widest ones available
Next, I trim the sides where the stalks were cut close to the bulb.  I've tried it both ways and find the stalks to be tough and not as flavorful and sweet as the bulb.  If I've left a stub of the stalk, I trim it away.

Once I've trimmed the sides, I remove any significantly damaged or discolored outer layers.  Older bulbs may show some rust along the edges of the layers.  You can this in the bulbs in the above photograph.  This can be sliced away;  it usually only requires removing a very shallow sliver of the edge of that layer. Then I rinse the bulb in cold water just to remove any dirt that might still be present and to clean it before slicing and cooking.

Once the bulb is trimmed, clean, and ready to be sliced, I cut the bulbs in half through the middle from front to back (the long way) to expose the core.

Bulbs trimmed and cored and ready to be sliced.
The core is removed by cutting a V-shaped wedge along it's length to remove the innermost part of it.  It's not necessary to remove the entire core.  I leave enough to hold the bulb intact and make it easier to slice the bulb into thin strips for cooking.

Although many cooking sources say that it can be left intact and sliced and cooked with the rest of the bulb, I find it tough and fibrous and so I always trim it out.

The bulb halves are now ready to live.  I turn each half flat side down on the cutting board and thinly slice them from the bottom of the bulb to the top.  The cut slices almost resemble celery in texture.

I cook fennel in a 50/50 mixture of olive oil and butter.   I use just enough to cover the bottom of the frying pan and lightly coat the slices.  Even when I am making a large batch, usually no more than a quarter cup of each is needed for a medium-large pan of fennel (roughly 6 cups of sliced fennel bulbs).  If I find I need more, I add more butter, a tablespoon at a time.

Adding fresh fennel leaves and dried fennel seed increases the flavor
Heat the pan, oil and butter and when the butter is completely melted, add the fennel and saute on medium heat.  You want the vegetable to slowly brown and carmelize, not quickly brown and turn to mush.

Rinse some of the lacy green fronds and roll them in a paper towel to dry them.  With kitchen shears snip the fronds into pieces 1/4 to 1/2 inch in length and add to the pan.  This enhances the flavor of the fennel.  I also add a tablespoon or two of dried fennel seed to add another layer of flavor to the dish as well.  Agenerous pinch of sea salt rounds out the flavor profile. 

With a large spatula or silicon spoon, turn the fennel until the oil and butter are evenly distributed, then add a small amount of sugar (not artificial sweetener) to help the fennel caramelize.   I add one or two tablespoons for 3-4 cups of raw fennel and two or three tablespoons for a large batch - more than 5-6 cups of raw fennel.  Even though the fennel is sweet in and of itself, the sugar helps the fennel to caramelize.

Ready to serve, the cooked fennel is a light golden brown and fork tender.
Continue to turn the fennel in the pan occasionally and let it slowly cook to a light golden brown.  When it's ready to serve, it should be tender but not crunchy.  A large pan (4-5 cups) takes about 20 minutes to cook through on medium or medium-low heat.

Although my family and I love the sweetness of caramelized fennel, I found several recipes that mentioned adding a small amount of  lemon juice to cut the sweetness and brighten the flavor.

It's important when selecting fennel bulbs to choose the widest ones (laterally, from side to side) that you can find, since the core makes up a considerable amount of the bulb.   I look for the freshest bulbs with the least amount of rust.   And for those time when you wish you had an extra fennel bulb and need to stretch the recipe, add sweet white onions.  Vidalia onions work exceptionally well but I have also used generic white onions with a tasty result.  In fact, my family said they could not tell the difference.  Peel and quarter one or two large onions and slice in the same manner as the fennel.  Add to the raw fennel and cook as above.  The onions will acquire the anise flavor during cooking.

I've used this as a side dish with chicken, pork and lamb.  Although my favorite herb references indicate that it's often paired with seafood, my seafood allergy has prevented me from experimenting with fish dishes flavored with fennel. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Invasion of the Garden Snatchers: The Perennial Problem of Invasive Plants

Kudzu on trees in Piedmont Park, Atlanta, GA, from Wikipedia
The introduction of non-native plants in any ecosystem can be a mixed blessing.  While many of the old garden and hybrid roses are an example of a blessing, the same cannot be said for kudzu (Pueraria lobata), for example, whose growth rate is best described as meteoric.

Originally introduced into this country  by the Soil Erosion Service and Civilian Conservation Corp in 1876 to help control soil erosion problems in Pennsylvania, its rapid growth and luscious foliage made it a favorite to cover shade porches and pergolas in the southern states.  It soon became a favorite cover crop because of its rapid growth rate but when left to its own devices and allowed to grow unchecked, it became a veritable menace, destroying everything in its path.

Kudzu has overtaken more than 7.5 million acres in the southern states where it has smothered all low growing plants in its path and covered, broke branches from, and even uprooted trees.  Growing up to a foot a day, it doesn't take long to cover an abandoned barn and overtake and damage electrical and phone lines.

Tall reeds mid left of the photograph, 2009, Ipswich River
Kudzu has been identified as far north as New York City but fortunately, it can't survive New England winters.  Still, we have our own predatory weeds that more than make up for it.

Here in Massachusetts and along the coast extending into southern New Hampshire, a major and pressing problem is the common reed phragmites (Phragmites australis) which has been rapidly and relentlessly overtaking both salt marshes and freshwater tidal basins alike.  Its rapid proliferation has caused serious problems along the entire Atlantic coast but it is of particular concern to us as it now poses a major threat to the survival of the 18,000 acre Great Marsh here in Essex County, a critical part of our local ecosystem and marine culture.

There is a subspecies of phragmites that is native to North America, however the subspecies (P. australis subs. Americanus) is a much less vigorous and more easily controlled plant than Phragmites australis subs. Australis, the non-native variety that is now considered a serious environmental threat.
Phragmites have changed the landscape along the river's edge.
Phragmites reeds grow in dense swaths that can spread as much as 16 linear feet in a year.  Mature plants of the non-native variety can reach 15-20 feet in height and are easily identified because except for trees, they are the tallest things you'll find.  The subspecies Americanus is much shorter, growing to a maximum height of 6-12 feet. 

Phragmites spread and multiply both by seeds (less so) and thick rhizomes (most commonly and aggressively) that are thick, notoriously difficult to kill, and can extend up to 20 inches in depth where they send out innumerable runners.  Chopping back the top of the plant does not affect the rhizome which will continue to extend runners and then send up new, denser, more vigorous growth the next growing season.  Most importantly, phragmites  choke out the other native species which are a critical part of the food chain for local fish and fowl and there is concern about the survival of wildlife and the Marsh if the proliferation continues unchecked.

Normal plant growth is gradually being overtaken by phragmites along the rivers.
Phragmites have been used as a grazing crop (albeit nutritionally incomplete) for livestock, but grazing (and mowing) only increases the vigor of the plants, so cutting down the massive stands only makes the problem worse.  And livestock don't graze in the Great Marsh.  Extensive burning over the course of multiple seasons appears to be the best chance of achieving control of a plant that tolerates sand, mud, and clay, is highly salt-tolerant, and can also thrive in a wide range of pH.

I first noticed phragmites in 2009 while canoeing on the Ipswich River.  (They were certainly here long before that, but had escaped my awareness until then.)  I noticed the changing landscape along the river's edge -- the wildflowers and indigenous plants and shrubs were being replaced by a tall grass that formed a dense wall that obstructed the beautiful landscape.

Over the course of two years, large swaths of this noxious weed replaced the natural river habitat in many areas and have completely obliterated the view of the coastal marshes (and everything that used to grow there) along local route US-1.

Even more frustrating is that it found it's way into our own garden this past summer.  I went out to weed one of the perennial beds and to my horror,several tall fronds had sprouted in the midst of our Montauk daisies and coneflowers.  Digging them out was a major chore and we could not have done it without our spearhead spade shovel.  

We abut a meadow that is marshy in the spring and I have seen phragmites growing there, although they are usually mowed down during the twice yearly mowing for hay.  Digging them out was a tremendous chore and we ended up digging up and sacrificing several daisies and coneflowers in the process.

Loosestrife sprouted in a rose bed.
Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is another lovely but aggressively invasive plant that has been an increasing and problematic presence over the past several decades.  It was introduced into the east coast of the US in the early 1800's and since then, it has spread along waterways and roadways to virtually everywhere in the continental United States save Florida.

A common sight along highway medians, roadsides, waterways, ponds, swamps, and meadows, it's pretty lavender color brightens the roadside.  But like phragmites, it overtakes wetlands and marshes and has become a major threat to the ecosystem.  Also like phragmites, the root system is exceedingly vigorous and once the plants are established, it can be difficult to dig out even with a spade shovel.

Loosestrife spreads primarily by seed which it produdes in voluminous amounts.  Easily carried on the wind or by birds, volunteers have been finding their way into our yard from the adjacent meadow for several years.
Loosestrife popped up unexpectedly in a shade garden

If you find it blooming in your garden, cut the plant back before it blooms and then dig as much of the root system as you can find.  If you miss a substantial part of the root, it will re-grow the following season, so keep an eye out early in the growing season and if you see it sprouting, dig early and dig wide.

Loosestrife has popped up in our shaded cottage bed and among our blueberry shrubs.  It also has appeared in our sunny rose beds and along the edge of our property where it abuts the meadow.  Since there are large clumps of it in the meadow that will continue to shed seed, all we can do is be vigilant and dig it up as soon as we notice it.

In the case of loosestrife, mowing does help, and when we see it sprouting near the property line, we try to keep it mowed to prevent it from blooming and setting seed.
Brilliant fall foliage

The ubiquitous burning bush, Euonymus alatus, can be found dotting the landscape throughout New England.

For decades, its brilliant red autumn foliage and hardy growth habit made it a favorite of landscapers who were designing low maintenance plantings for shopping malls, office buildings, and other places where pollution and drought tolerant shrubs would thrive.   The stunning scarlet fall foliage became a favorite of home gardeners as well.

 Unfortunately, the burning bush has become a bane of green space and woods alike and many states, Massachusetts included, now restrict its importation, propagation, and sale. 

The tendency toward being invasive is primarily a problem where the shrubs have been allowed to naturalize along highways or in pastures and woodlands where they out-compete and eventually replace native plants.   When they are planted in urban areas as ornamentals, there doesn't seem to be as much of an issue with them growing out of control, although birds have been credited with spreading the seeds contained in the fall berries.

Three of our four burning bush shrubs showing vivd green foliage in spring.
There were four mature burning bushes already planted in front of our suburban home when Steve originally purchased the property and in the twelve years that we've resided here, we've not had a single seedling develop from any of them.

Many of the problems with the burning bush developed when homes were abandoned and previously tended gardens were left to their own devices.  Burning bush berries spread the seed into the woods, likely with the help of birds, and when they sprouted, the rapidly growing plants thrived and began to out-compete the native shrubs for space.

I've long been very concerned about well-intended but sometimes misguided planting of non-native plants in areas where they will be left to their own devices and not cultivated or kept in line.  They're kind of like teenagers... you need to set firm limits and if you don't, you end up with a teen (or a burning bush) that is totally out of control. Not a good thing.

We've been asked many times why we, as responsible home owners and stewards of the land, don't simply dig them up.  My feelings about doing so are complicated.  The reality is that any robust plant, native or not, can become invasive if not properly monitored and controlled.  We saw this first hand when a tall and vigorous cultivar of Mondara (bee balm) overtook one of our cottage beds.  It took six years for us to completely eradicate it from our property and reclaim the bed.

While I doubt that I would ever plant another burning bush (or any more bee balm) even in a locale that allowed them (I've never been particularly fond of burning bushes, their status as invasive aside), I see no value to disrupting the existing garden beds and destroying healthy plants that have to date not caused a problem in their present location, especially since they have historically provided nesting places for birds.

Moreover, at least half of the homes and two shopping malls within three quarters of a mile of our home are prominently planted with them.  Destroying these four shrubs might make a statement, but to what outcome? 

A large burning bush growing in the cottage garden (2009)
Were the Commonwealth to mandate that all shrubs currently growing in our locale be destroyed, we would comply, but that is not the current recommendation.  It seems to us that a more appropriate tact for us to take is to continue what we have been doing for the past several years and that is to exercise a firm hand over those plants that were planted as ornamentals when it was legal and permissible to do so. 

What we have found very effective and at the same time uniquely attractive is to drastically prune the shrubs in spring, just as the rather inconspicuous blooms are opening.  This prevents all but a rare few berries from developing and virtually eliminates the primary way that the burning bush self propagates.  

Exposing the inner, larger branches gives the shrub a completely new look and most people who see the shrubs after pruning don't recognize them.  

The same shrub (2012) after we began drastic pruning.  Opening up the lower 2/3 of the shrub lightens the visual weight of it in the garden and in so doing, we remove all of the blossoms that eventually would develop into berries and seed.
We leave a generous canopy but shape the top.  This shrub was formally thickly branched and as wide as the canopy all hte way down to its base.


List of Invasive Plants - Massachusetts

Newburyport Daily News Article - Phragmites

Wikipedia Entry: Phragmites

USDA Profile:  PhragmitesFact Sheet (pdf document)

National Gardening Association's Weed Library