Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Field Trip Report: The Cloisters

Quince Tree
Espalier Pear
The Cloisters

The Cloisters is a museum devoted to medieval art. Part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is located in the Upper West Side of New York City in the Fort Tyron Park area (a quick skip and a hop away from the George Washington Bridge. And you can see my hometown, Englewood Cliffs, NJ across the Hudson). I visited there on Fathers' Day. I was not able to explore the Museum and gardens like I would otherwise, as I was accompanied by small children, but the kids did the best they could and I fully intend to go back (though the 10 year olds and 14 year old loved it).
The Cloisters has a medieval garden and I had the opportunity to speak to a garden volunteer of 10 years for a few minutes- too bad I did not get his name. A lovely person, he took his time, despite the beating sun and heat, to talk to me about the standout quince trees in the garden (photo above). I love people with that level of enthusiasm and generosity of spirit! These 45 year old trees apparently produce only some usable fruit in the cool climates of New York, with the cool September and October breezes off the Hudson, but they are lovely and the flowers and fruits are highly fragrant. The volunteer also took the time to show my very bright nephew Ethan the candelabra-shaped espaliered pear tree (photo above) and explain how it was done -quite lovely.
The garden tries to be historically accurate, but, like all historic gardens, there is some guesswork involved. They have a lovely arum (the same I have posted on, Dranunculus vulgaris, that I also grow) and some interesting citrus fruits of the era (photo above) and a variety of herbs. The Director has an interesting garden blog, worthy of a visit (learn about skirret!) at:
Happy gardening!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Basil Blight!!!!!!!!!!!!

Watch out basil (and pesto) lovers- there is an outbreak of basil blight! If you see signs, act quickly!

Read about it at:


Happy gardening! No blight!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

4th Annual National Pollinators Week: Part 2

[Photo Credit: SRV]
Save the Pollinators!
I hope you have been a busy bee and engaged in National Pollinators' Week activities! What, you haven't? It's not too late. Pollinators, and other wild creatures, need just a few things to thrive, so here goes:
1. Plant something that flowers. A yard of regularly mown grass is as useless as a desert to a bee. Most flowers will do, though some are better, like native plants. Plants that I see abuzz with activity for bees, birds and butterflies include salvias, asclepias, buddelias, African blue basil and many fruiting plants and shrubs. Even a few well cared for pots of flowers will help!
2. Walk on the wild side- is there any area of your yard or garden that you can allow to grow a little wild? We have a small copse of trees and brush that is a habitat for many critters.
3. Provide a shallow basin of water (changed regularly) with a rock in it that stands above the water line and butterflies will thank you! They cannot go into water to drink, but can land on the rock and drink. They like natural seeps as well, where they get minerals along with their water.
Protecting pollinators is important- as I wrote last time, no pollinators, no food.
Happy gardening and pollinator protection!

A Lagniappe: Orchid

This is an orchid (cattleya?) from the conservatory at Ginter gardens. They have some lovely specimens, sometimes more quantity than others, but always enjoyable.

Monday, June 21, 2010

4th Annual National Pollinators Week

(Photo credit: SRV)
Happy 4th Annual National Pollinator's Week! June 21-24, 2010 is the week set designated by the USDA to honor and encourage those hard working insects, birds and mammals (think bats) that pollinate all pollen-bearing, sexually-reproducing plants! Like ALL our major food crops! No pollinators, not food! What have you done for them today? More on this topic this week! In the meantime, go to:


Happy gardening! And, thank you, pollinators!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Chocolate and Zucchini Muffins

A solution to too much zucchini!

Chocolate and Zucchini Muffins from the Christian Science Monitor:

2-1/2 C flour
1 t salt
1 t baking soda
1 t cinnamon
1/4 C unsweetened cocoa
1/2 C vegetable oil
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 t vanilla extract
1/2 C buttermilk
1/2 C butter, softened
1-3/4 C sugar
2 C grated raw zucchini (or other summer squash)
1 C chopped nuts

3/4 C miniature semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease muffin tins (small ones?) generously with butter or line with paper muffin cups. Mix together flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon and cocoa and set aside. In a medium bowl, stir together the oil, eggs, vanilla, and buttermilk. In a large bowl, with electric beater, blend the sugar and butter until well mixed. Add the oil mixture to this and blend well. Stir in zucchini, followed by the dry ingredient mix. Scoop the batter into the muffin tins. Sprinkle top with nuts and, if desired, with mini chips. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the tops feel firm when gently pressed and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Makes about 2 dozen muffins depending on size.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens

It is odd that I have been to Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens (LGBG) at least 100 times and have never written a blog post on it. I like Ginter. When we first moved here, it was a great place to go with a 4 year old. And I obviously love plants. LGBG has some really lovely features, especially water features, and a great collection of plants. I adore their Sarracenia collection, an assortment of bug-eating pitcher plants. I fell in love with Hinoki False Cypress, Japanese lilies and lotus there, and grew to appreciate ferns and other green plants that thrive in the shade. Their conservatory is lovely, and, at times, is just stuffed full of orchids (below).
I am not a fan of roses, but if you like them, the Rose Belvedere is great (not as big as some rose gardens, but more human-scaled).

But there is one area at Ginter that I do not like, their relatively recently re-done Children's Garden. The old Children's garden was a garden, first and foremost, and focused on dirt, plants and the life cycle. Kids could dig, pick and eat tomatoes and figs, search for earthworms. The new garden suffers from too much hard scape (pavement; walkways; a tree house that is not in a tree, that goes to nowhere and has nothing to do in it but look out; and a water play area-not that I am against water play, but it is not a living garden- it is a rubber and asphalt installation)(though maybe I am in the developmental stage of curmudgeon and wrong?). And is area has too much manicured grass (quel horreur!) (hardscape and grass example below):
Are are other new features to Ginter I do like- some Japanese architectural elements (a screen and circle gate, though the circle gate is somewhat over sized), but a new large concrete and steel bridge over the lake is very urban, too large in scale and, again, too much hardscape.

Ginter Gardens is worth a visit, so I recommend it. I just wish it was all garden.
Happy gardening!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Too much rhubarb?

Photo: Dieter Weber(GNU free documentation license)

Too much rhubarb? I envy you. For 20 recipes for rhubarb, go to:
like rhubarb tart, below:

Rhubarb Tart with Lemon Verbena

For the filling:
- 1 kilo (2 pounds 3 ounces) untrimmed rhubarb, to yield about 800 grams (1 pound 12 ounces) when trimmed
- 80 grams (1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon) sugar (I use finely ground, blond raw sugar)
- 1 tablespoon uncooked small pearl tapioca (or semolina)
- about 12 leaves fresh lemon verbena
- 1 rounded tablespoon crème fraîche or heavy cream
- 1 large egg

For the dough:
- 200 grams (7 ounces, about 1 1/2 cups) pastry flour (in France, use a T45 or a T55)
- 80 grams (1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon) sugar (I use finely ground, blond raw sugar)
- 25 grams (1/4 cup) almond powder (a.k.a. almond meal)
- 120 grams (8 1/2 tablespoons) cold butter, diced (I use semi-salted; if you use unsalted, add a good pinch of salt), plus a little for the pan
- 1 large egg, beaten

Makes one 28-cm (11-inch) tart (plus leftover tart dough).

1. Prepare the rhubarb

Start about 3 hours before baking. Trim the ends of the rhubarb stalks (no peeling necessary) and slice into 2-cm (3/4-inch) chunks. Place in a nonreactive shallow dish, sprinkle with half of the filling's sugar (40 grams or about 3 tablespoons) and toss to coat. Leave to macerate at room temperature so it will release some of its juices.

2. Make the dough

Start about 2 hours before baking. Combine the pastry flour, sugar, almond powder, and salt if using, in the bowl of a food processor or stand mixer. Add the diced cold butter and mix until the mixture takes the consistency of breacrumbs. Add the egg and mix just until the dough starts to come together. (This can also be done by hand, but try to handle the dough as little as you can and without heating the butter too much with your hands.)

Turn out on a clean work surface. Divide the dough into one 300-gram (10 1/2-ounce) piece and one 180-gram (6 1/3-ounce) piece, and pat each piece of dough into a disk without kneading. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap.

You'll be using the larger of the two pieces for this tart. Place that one in the fridge and chill for 1 hour. (The other piece can be reserved -- and optionally frozen -- for another use; it is big enough to line a 22-cm [8 2/3-inch] tart pan.)

3. Roll out the dough

Remove the dough from the fridge and let it rest for a few minutes at room temperature so it's not too cold, or it won't roll out well.

Butter a 28-cm (11-inch) tart pan, preferably one with a removable bottom.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface and transfer it to the pan to line it, crimping the sides all around with your fingers for a prettier effect. Don't worry if it tears -- just press it back together or patch it up if necessary. Prick the bottom with a fork a few times, and return to the fridge to rest for 30 minutes (this will prevent the dough from shrinking or sliding down the sides of the pan).

4. Prepare the lemon verbena syrup

While the crust is chilling, place a medium colander over a bowl and pour the rhubarb and juices through the colander to drain thoroughly. Set the rhubarb chunks aside, and transfer the strained juices to a small saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil and reduce until you have about 80 ml (1/4 cup) juices. Remove from the heat, add the lemon verbena leaves and let steep.

5. Blind-bake the crust

Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F) and insert the pan in the oven to blind-bake (i.e. bake without the filling) for 10 minutes.

6. Add the rhubarb

Remove the pan from the oven. Sprinkle the tapioca evenly across the bottom (this will help absorb the rhubarb juices and keep the crust crisp) and arrange the chunks of rhubarb on top in a crowded but single layer. Return to the oven for 20 minutes.

7. Add the custard

While the crust and rhubarb are baking, sieve the reduced juices into a bowl to remove the lemon verbena leaves (or just fish them out). Add the remaining sugar from the filling ingredients (40 grams or about 3 tablespoons), the cream, and the egg, and beat to combine.

Remove the tart from the oven and turn the oven off. Pour the egg mixture evenly over the rhubarb and return to the turned-off but closed oven for another 20 to 30 minutes, for the residual heat to gently set the custard.

8. Cool

Transfer to a rack and let cool completely before serving.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I'm sorry, so sorry

Was it Pasty Cline who sang "I'm Sorry" (though some of her other song titles would also work here: "Crazy" and "So Wrong")? Sometimes songs pop into my head, or just phrases of them, and "I'm sorry, so sorry" came to me as I was picking the third of these large zucchini (pictured above) that I fully intend to inflict on my family tonight! Third night with zucchini on the menu! Why can't the zuke plant produce less at a time and last far longer into the season? Kind of spread out the bounty? Come on, plant breeders, work on that one!
Happy gardening!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

More orchids at Ginter

A short video of the orchids at Ginter Gardens, Richmond VA.
Happy gardening!

Saturday, June 12, 2010



Now that we are entering the hotter days of the season, we need to talk water. Did you know there are right ways and wrong ways to water your plants? I see the wrong way all the time, especially when only walks in the neighborhood. Here goes:

  1. One neighbor broadcast some grass seed and, when he comes home from work, gets out the hose with sprayer attached and sprinkles the area for a few minutes, until things look wet. However, if you dig to just a tiny depth, you will see the that soil is still dry under that wet sheen on the surface. This encourages seedlings to sprout, alright, but does not encourage them to send their roots down in to the soil- after it, it is still dry there! What do you get? Dead or weak grass. So the first rule: water deeply once a week, water grass seedlings and new plantings deeply a few times a week until they are established.
  2. Watering during a drought. This can be a good thing to do, if done well, but is a problem in some cases (especially if you are on water restrictions). Most established lawns, for example, will go dormant during a dry spell, only to perk up with a good rain. Watering that lawn conditions the lawn to need lots of water and, if you are restricted later from watering or go on vacation and do not arrange for the lawn to be watered, it dies. So the rule? Hand water important specimen plants during a drought, but save water and let the lawn go dormant.
  3. Watering poor soils. If your soil is unimproved (and you do not have lovely Pamunkey soil like I do...though I also have pockets of clay) there can be some problems. Sandy soils drain fast and wick water away, so watering will need to be frequent and mineral salts from the water may build up on the surface. If your soil has a lot of clay, water may pond or stand on it, drowning or smothering the roots of trees, shrubs and other plants. If your house is built on a base of construction rubble, which some subdivisions are, you can have a mix of rocky areas that drain fast, some areas that drain slowly, so knowing your soil is important. It is usually a good idea to improve your soil with organic matter- compost, leaf humus, aged grass clippings (too green and fresh and they can burn plants). Organic matter is what holds water in the soil and makes it available to plant roots. It is often the difference between a successful garden and a failed one.
  4. Water in the early morning. There is another problem with scenario #1 above, watering during the afternoon. It is recommended that you water in as early morning as you can- this gives the water time to soak in. Watering in the sunny, hot part of the day means lots of water loss to evaporation, and evaporation doesn’t do those roots much good. Some people like watering in the evening, but that can contribute to problems with molds and fungi, especially in grasses and woody plants.

So water wisely, water well and water smart! And…

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Above is one hour's haul! For a family of 3!
Happy cooking!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Recipe: Raspberry Custard Tart

Recipe: Raspberry Custard Tart
I love creating recipes, especially when they use ingredients from my garden. We are currently in the midst of raspberry season and have an embarrassment of raspberry riches!

Here is a recipe that I whipped up and, darn, is it good.

Single crust- I made a press-in crust this way, but any good, sweet crust will work:
1 c walnuts, pulsed to finely ground in food processor. Add:
1/2 stick sliced, unsalted butter and pulse until mixed. Add:
3/4 c flour, 1/2 cup sugar. Pulse until mixed.
Press into tart pan
Blind bake, 350 for 20 minutes, let cool.

While that's baking, clean and drain 2 c. raspberries, then add sugar to taste.

2 cups yogurt, drained in a colander fitted with a coffee filter to reduce whey (the longer this is drained, the thicker it will get, but I only did it a half hour). Set aside.
Mix 1 cup milk, 1/4 c cornstarch, 1/2 cup sugar. Cook in microwave for 1 minute at a time, stirring in between, until thick. Add 1 t vanilla and drained yogurt. Whisk together and chill. [Optional: you can step up the richness by using part cream in place of the milk and/or adding a egg, whisked into the hot custard mix before adding the cool yogurt].

Assemble tart: put custard in the crust, top with raspberries. Chill. Serve. Drool.

You can probably do this with strawberries, blueberries, and thinly sliced peaches (those are coming on in a month here at Casa Thomas).
Happy Cooking!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

All Orchids Are Not Created Equal

Orchids are just too darn hard to grow! Right? Not if you grow Bletilla striata (and B. striata var. Alba) in your zone 7 and higher (farther south) garden. I purchased my first Bletilla bulb from Brent and Becky's Bulbs a few years ago, then got a few more, and they have reliably come back and reproduced in a shady garden bed. I love orchids, but have sadly killed so many indoor ones (phalaenopsis and cymbidium), so I am delighted that I can have a reliable, and lovely, outdoor orchid- and it has a slight sweet scent! Another "Judy Recommended" plant- pretty, slightly exotic and easy to grow!
Happy gardening!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Gardening Book Review

The New York Times Sunday Book Review section (tomorrow 6/6/10) has an interesting review of garden and farm books at:


Happy garden reading!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

"Truck" Farm

Film makers Ian Cheney, Curt Ellis and Carla Fleisher are driving about Manhattan in a pickup truck that has been converted to a vegetable garden! They are having a contest for schools on growing food in the oddest places! Check out the photos at:


Happy gardening!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

It's Alive!!!!

Voodoo Anyone?
One of my voodoo lilies (Dranunculus vulgaris) is in bloom! This fly-pollinated plant, also called "Corpse plant" smells like rotting meat or manure, just the ticket to attracting flies! Don't worry, this ephemeral bloom is short-lived so the smell doesn't last that long. This is an exotic plant that I adore! See the flies in the photo? Don't plant it near a door or window that is often open!
Happy gardening!

Edible-Podded Peas

Edible Podded Peas

For my money, the only kind of peas to grow are edible-podded peas. You can eat the pod and all and they do not require shucking! They are very sweet, easy to grow and freeze well. This year I again grew Sugar Snap and Cascadia peas from Pinetree Garden seeds. I pre-soaked them to enhance germination and planted them around a trellises I built in an hour from tree trimmings and twine. These are both productive varieties, though, this being Central Virginia, they only produce for a short window, about a month- but they are one of the earliest vegetables to come in. In addition, they enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen and their bed can be used later in the season for summer or fall plantings. You know the plant is done when it turns yellow and stops producing, usually when it gets hot out.
Above are photos of the snap pea plant and, in the bowl, what I picked in a few minutes.
Happy gardening!