The Spiritual Gardener: Oh To Be in England…

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It rained steadily all night, and was mild and wet in the morning – good weather for digging out more ivy under the great, drooping Serbian spruce by the neighbor’s fence. I have decided that the old and very tall red rose I moved from under that same spruce last summer must be a climber after all, so I will move it again, the poor thing, together with its twining clematis partner, to the black arch to replace the failed climber there and cover the arch faster.

The large holly trees were sheeted with festive red berries all during the Christmas season and now with the colder weather, the robins by their dozens are feasting on them. I put some sand and fireplace ash on the mulch piles, to add to the delicious stew of rot that I am brewing there this winter.  One recent evening, I heard a hawk cry and went outside to see this sleek and fat bird of prey, at the very top of the tallest pine tree next door, transfixed in the last rays of rose sunlight one January evening, a magical moment.

Our town has a lot of these Serbian spruces; they grow to a great size and have a lovely, gently up-curved branching habit.

This day, I am up early at 5:15, having gone to bed very early.  It is quite dark, and I have my loyal dog Cosimo at my side and what excellent company he is. Honestly, he is more intelligent and certainly more pleasant that half the people I know. I have been reading Dorothy Jacob’s Flowers in the Garden. And recently I have finally gotten outside for work in the garden on a fairly mild day, 50s and sunny. I cut down all the debris in the porch bed, weeded it down to the grass blade and manured half of it before quitting for the day.

How fine a bed looks that way, all cleaned up and manured and dressed for the balance of winter, the dark, rich brown earth contrasted against the sharp and spare green of the grass, the ivy and pachysandra and, soon, the bright verdure of new growth. If one were rich and employed a garden staff, the gardens would all look just like this all the time, but alas, we all do the best we can, there is a recession on in case you haven’t heard, or near enough, and the garden staff are nowhere to be found. Not that I do any better when there is not a recession on, of course.

Few things rejoice the gardener’s heart in late winter like the sight of fresh green shoots (here, of daylilies) against the clean, rich black earth.

And how one’s mind does travel to spring green in the dead of January. “Oh to be in England, now that April’s there,” said Mr. Browning in what, considering the foul and disgusting weather England has to endure in April in the real world, is surely the outer limit of the poetic license we should allow even our best versifiers. April in England is certainly no idyll and was surely even worse in Browning’s time than now. Probably he was writing for the bitterly homesick Anglo-Indians, who would have given anything to feel and hear the chill crunch of ice and slush on the garden path, and the smart stinging of lovely fresh sleet on the back of the neck.  Or more likely he had in mind the two or perhaps three really fine days in an otherwise rather severe month meteorologically.

Dreaming of spring. Here, a carpet of bluebells with their fresh green leaves and tiny scented blue flowers.

Such a day is fixed in my memory in 2006, when my son and I had flown in to London the day before and gone up to Blenheim by train and bus for the day, overnighting sumptuously at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford, as I had always wanted to do. On the Saturday I showed him around Magdalen College, where I lived and studied for three years. Well, lived anyway, not studied so much. We walked over the same paving stones trodden by Cardinal Wolsey, C.S. Lewis and Oscar Wilde, to name three Magdalen luminaries that come quickly to mind and who probably would be disconcerted to find themselves conjoined in the same sentence. He was amazed by Oxford and I could see him finally grasping that perhaps his father was not the dear old buffer he had always taken him for but might perhaps be a bit more interesting than he had thought. I could tell he was impressed as I led him around, reminiscing as we went.

His comment was: “Wow, this is really cool, Dad.” Every parent of teenagers will understand what a hard-won compliment this was; it was what we call “A Great Moment in Parenting.”

Magdalen College, Oxford after a light snowfall.

As we walked past the President’s Lodgings on the other side of the Porter’s Lodge, my mind flew back thirty years to my first days there as a very nervous freshman. Terrified, more like. I remembered that as soon as I started at Magdalen we all had to go and meet the very formidable old President Griffiths, one-by-one, for an excruciatingly painful interview. He was on the team that invented radar during the War and allowed Britain to win the Battle of Britain, so was a very serious brainiac, but also was terribly shy and I am sure these interviews were excruciating for him as well.

“What sort of activities are you thinking of Jensen?” he growled, insinuatingly. “Activities, President?” I said innocently, “What do you mean by activities?”  “What are you going to do beside study?” he thundered.  “You can’t just study all day you know, you’ll go mad, man!”  “Um, I hadn’t really thought about it, President.  I just got here,” I said, lamely. “Well, my strong advice is, stay well away from the Union, don’t row and don’t under any circumstances have anything to do with the OUDS (the Oxford University Dramatic Society). Any one of them will quite ruin your Oxford career. There. You can go now, I guess, and send in the next chap.”  And so I was dismissed.  Of course I immediately went out and joined all three and my Oxford career was in time completely ruined, just as he foretold. Oxford certainly did its best for me, I know; I doubt very much I did anything for Oxford.

But returning to the present, or rather the recent past, we then made our way along the nostalgic beauty of Addison’s Walk to the University Parks which were ablaze that week with daffodils in the bright (and deliciously rare) April sunshine.

It was a truly glorious day, and I took a picture of my son standing in vast drifts of tens of thousands of daffodils.  Thinking of that, this morning I got out of my chair and got a cup of coffee and took Cosimo outside to check our own daffodils in the side yard and, sure enough, they are 3-5 inches out of the ground already, though it is hard to find them in the fallen leaves and the wintry dark, helped only by the dim light from our security lamp.  It is lovely to see the first new growth so early in the New Year.

How typical of the gardener’s mind that he scrounges in the pre-dawn dark to find some green shoots and in his mind he is transported three months and 3,000 miles to myriads of yellow blooms on a bright sunny day in a land far away.  And the sun set at 5 pm today, already 20 minutes later than on the solstice, after a furious flurry of snow that was very wintry and lovely, but which left only wet streets behind.

Later on, we will talk more about how the gardener in winter stays connected to the garden, but one great way is to over-winter indoors some plants you particularly care for. Of these, two of our favorites are small pots of chives and rosemary that normally live outdoors but, for four months of the year, they have to live inside, in the mudroom in a window.  There, they can be useful still, and we clip them for herbs to put into hearty winter cooking.

There is nothing better for the cold and dark days, we know, than comfort food: hot, hearty and old-fashioned. So picture this: you are grilling some steaks on the patio as a light snow is falling and inside there is a fire in the hearth and a bottle of robust red wine is open, breathing. Say it’s a Napa Valley merlot. No, make that a big cabernet. And you happen to know how to make a fool-proof, fantastic mushroom sauce to go with the steaks that are sizzling.  Here’s the real deal and it should be in everyone’s repertoire for hearty winter meals:

Mushroom Sauce

2 Tbsp. butter, divided

4 cups sliced mushrooms

Salt and pepper

1½ cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)

1 tsp. red wine vinegar

¼ cup flour

2 Tbsp. chopped fresh chives (or rosemary, if you prefer)

Any mushrooms will do for the purposes of this recipe. You can go with common, inexpensive mushrooms, or fancy exotics if you feel like showing off a bit. You can also mix and match, and we recommend using more than just one kind; makes it more interesting. Melt 1 Tbsp. of the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and cook for about 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.  Add broth and vinegar, then simmer until the liquid is reduced, 12-15 minutes. Yes, the 1 tsp. of vinegar will seem like too little, but it isn’t; it gives just the right amount of acid to balance this rich sauce. Reduce the heat to low, then add the flour and stir briskly; the sauce should instantly thicken into a nice, rich gravy. Add the second Tbsp. butter and the chives (or rosemary), and remove from stovetop.  For classic uses, such as over steaks and other cooked meats, use this sauce just like this. For more subtle uses, for example as the base for a mushroom risotto, it can be puréed in a blender. And try it puréed as a mushroom pesto with pasta. You can also use vegetable stock for a vegetarian version of this, then sauté some exotic mushrooms and use the mushrooms and the mushroom sauce for an intense mushroom pasta that is out of this world.

The rich and creamy mushroom sauce, after it has been puréed.


David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.