The Spiritual Gardener: The End of Winter, Finally

Travel can be treacherous at this time of year, and airport closings and road delays maddening. Even so, since I can’t really get my hands dirty in the garden, I don’t mind a bit of business travel, especially if it lends itself to a stopover in the West. Last week I traveled to Seattle, Portland and Denver on business. In Portland, I woke up on East Coast time, much too early, so I made some strong coffee in my room and quietly sketched out a design for a patio extension we have been thinking about. It’s funny how the mind of the gardener can pore over every inch of the garden and its distinctive features, even when 3,000 miles away.

Then on to Colorado where, after my business meetings were over, I went skiing for a day and then took an extra day to drive to Moab in Utah for some redrock hiking and climbing. I badly needed to get some western topography imprinted on my retinas. In western Colorado, the peach orchards were all blushing furiously with the rising sap of spring and getting their annual pruning. My Colorado wildlife sightings included three small herds of white tail deer, a big glossy coyote, a Colorado bighorn sheep (near Georgetown, of course) and two spectacular bald eagles wintering over in De Becque Canyon.

The redrock country of eastern Utah and northern Arizona (pictured above) has always exercised a powerful pull over me, as it does to everyone who feels an affinity for this stupendous landscape.

Returning home, I find the absurd and excessive winter cold persists. We had an icicle hanging off of an eave on the north side of the house; it was about eight feet long, and hung all the way down to the ground floor kitchen window, which was quite amazing. Icicles are a very beautiful aspect of winter, but of course the reason they are hanging on your house is that you are leaking heat like mad from a poorly insulated house and probably also have roof and gutter drainage problems that you should take care of, so they are not exactly something a fastidious homeowner should be happy to see.

But there you are, they are beautiful all the same. Beauty is often associated with trouble, as countless people have noticed to their chagrin through the ages, but I can’t really tell you more about that than the troubadour Ricky Martin already did in “Livin’ La Vida Loca”.

garden-snow-and-firepitAnd speaking of troubadours, last night it snowed heavily again and our son and his friend built a huge fire in the firepit, then got their guitars out and were playing and singing in the blizzard at the foot of the garden, by the blazing fire. Boys are so wonderfully odd.

Inside by a warm fire of our own, I am reading Penelope Hobhouse’s superbly photographed book, Flower Gardens; the pages fairly explode with color and Hobhouse’s prose is informative, lively and refreshingly no-nonsense. The book fills my head so full of plans for my own garden that I have had to make a long list of ambitious projects I want to undertake.

Most gardeners are prone to these late winter fireside reveries and plans. Each fall I find my list of spring and summer projects, made the previous winter, and am amazed at how much I actually manage to get done in the way of substantial improvements around the place, which all have to happen in addition to all the general run of the mill upkeep and maintenance, indoors and out. We have now lived long enough in this garden that I finally feel I have accomplished a lot, though of course it never ends, and I am starting to see some maturity and execution in my plans.  Satisfying, that.

And so, inspired to bestir myself and get some garden projects under way, I put my spring foxglove seeds (the flowers will be pale pink) into seedbed trays on the kitchen windowsills. They are going to be glorious, I think, and I walk around the place smugly like a chap with money in the bank. We are finally having a sunny and rather mild day every so often, so this should melt quite a lot of our remaining snow, this mini ice age, now looking like thick and rather dirty marzipan encrusting everything.

I cut the buddleia way back and cut down the few remaining phloxes and the raspberry canes and then got a little aggressive with the very overgrown honeysuckle in the back corner of the yard, behind the footbridge. It had been bowed down over the sidewalk by heavy snow and, when I started cutting it back, I noticed it had invaded and was smothering a big and very ancient box tree, so I cut it out of that and how magnificent that old box now looks. By its size, it is very venerable and must have been here ages.

garden-pink-foxgloves,-Longwood-GardensIn reality, this year’s foxgloves are just seedbeds on a sunny window sill; but in the gardener’s fond imagination, they already look like this.

I was at the hardware store last weekend and saw they had beautiful white lilies (“Casa Blanca”) for sale so, despite my decided lack of success with lilies I decided to try again.  The only really successful ones I have ever had were here before we bought the place and I am pretty sure our highly efficient rabbits finally got them last year. I bought the Casa Blancas and am raising them first in pots this spring, at least until they get far enough along to be put out in the cruel garden, to try their luck in life. Parenting runs on very similar principles, and it is never easy either. As for the white lilies, how great it would be to have armfuls of these stunning creatures, as in my imagination of course I already do.

garden-lilies,-Casablanca-againThe great Casa Blanca lily, a classic beauty in white. You could never have too many.

In birding news, while walking Cosimo around the golf course, I heard an owl hoot in a neighbor’s yard at 3 p.m., surprisingly, and saw the first blue jay of the year. And during the heavy snowfall last week, I watched hundreds of robins feasting in the holly tree and flying to the gutter for sips of water, each one leaving a tiny puff of snow as it exploded out of the holly. What a show, I watched for ages!

These robins continue to feast on the rapidly dwindling bounty of the holly berries, trying to eke out a living in late winter until the proteinaceous earthworms are available again, which they soon will be. One of the joys of not using chemicals in the garden is that earthworm populations rapidly explode, doing many good things for the garden and rejoicing the local bird population. It’s all good.

Indoors, we are making brunch more interesting and after lots of experimentation with adapting pasta for the breakfast table, we have come up with this easy and delicious dish that we call simply Bacon and Egg Pasta.  Add a peach Bellini and it’s a party!

garden-bacon-&-egg-pastaBacon & Egg Pasta

16 strips good quality bacon

½ medium onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced

30-40 cherry or grape tomatoes

¾ cup heavy cream

1/3 cup grated parmigiano reggiano

Salt and pepper

16 oz. spaghetti pasta

2 Tbsp. chopped fresh chives for garnish

8 whole eggs

1 Tbsp. vinegar

1 tsp. salt

Fry the bacon until it is slightly crispy but still juicy.  Transfer to drain on paper towel.  When cool, chop 8 strips bacon into a quarter inch dice and set aside.  Leave the other 8 slices whole.  Reserve 2 Tbsp. bacon grease.  Brown the onion and garlic in the bacon grease.  When they are golden, add the tomatoes and continue cooking until about one third of the tomatoes burst.  Turn heat to very low, add the cream and the cheese and stir until the cheese melts.  Add the diced bacon.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Turn heat off and leave pan on warm stovetop.

Put eight whole eggs in a saucepan, cover with at least one inch of cold water; add the vinegar and the salt (they prevent cracking, make the eggs easier to peel, and prevent the white from leaking if the eggs do crack). Bring to a boil, watched closely.  The second the water begins to boil, turn the heat down so the water boils gently for a steady count of exactly 180.  To get the slightly runny egg you want for the finished product, it is important to start with a precisely three-minute boiled egg. With a slotted spoon, transfer the eggs to a bowl of cool water; run cool tap water over them, the idea being to stop the cooking process. Then very gently peel them, taking care to keep the eggs as whole as possible.   Make a few extra the first time, until you get the hang of handling them, as they are wobbly and break easily.

Cook the pasta al dente. Toss the pasta with the cream sauce. Divide the pasta into four pasta bowls. Put two strips of bacon and two soft-boiled eggs on top of each dish of pasta, then garnish with the chives. Serves 4. We never said this was healthy, merely that it is delicious. We can’t be angels every day, after all.

 

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