The Spiritual Gardener: Not Worth Growing

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We drove down to St. Augustine last week to stay with friends who have a lovely home there, right on the beach. The trip took almost fifteen hours, but we left at 4 a.m. (with wife, Cosimo and both kids) so I drove to Richmond before everyone woke up and we stopped there for breakfast, and that made the rest of day seem not so long. The weather was spectacular all week. We spent four full days there, not doing much more than going for long walks on the beach and eating calamari every night, plus kayaking on the creeks off the Intracoastal Waterway.

The deep magenta magnolia soulangeana opened yesterday and is magnificent; what a marvelous tree this is.

Yesterday, I cut two large bouquets of daffodils and a vase full of hyacinths and forsythia. The deep magenta magnolia soulangeana opened yesterday and is magnificent; what a marvelous tree this is. I can’t stand the bossiness of a garden writer who says of a given specimen that “no garden should be without this”, but I might venture onto this dangerous ground in the case of this handsome creature.

I feel the same, by the way, about the rugosa rose “Blanc Double de Coubert”, which I finally broke down and acquired after seeing no fewer than three sophisticated garden writers declare that it is by far their single favorite rose of all time, no garden should be without it, and so on. And I must say it is charming and I have been completely won over by it, with the simple grace of its brilliantly white flowers, its lovely spicy perfume and its great hardiness and resistance to bugs and blights. We should all be so gorgeous and good-natured.

It is time to think about getting the dahlia rhizomes up from the basement, where they have happily over-wintered in trash bins filled with peat moss. It is a lot of effort to grow these tropical Mexican flowers where we have bitter winters, but we don’t begrudge them that, they are so beautiful.

But normally I shy away from opinionated superlatives of this kind. We gardeners can be an ornery lot, I find, and in general we do not like to be told what to do and what not to do.

Another pet peeve of mine is when garden writers sniff that a given plant is “not worth growing”, which is mortally offensive to every gardener who has that plant already growing in the garden, or who has perhaps been nursing a secret longing for it. The main use of a phrase like that, I think, is to demonstrate the unreachable and ineffable superiority of the writer, and his taste, sophistication and discernment. Every plant may be worth growing to someone. Personally, I cannot abide marigolds and do not see the point of them at all — except I guess that they have a long flowering season and are simple to grow — and I would not have them in my garden. But I know that is only a taste preference and I would not ruin the fun of someone who adored marigolds by saying they are not worth growing. I would not want the Eiffel Tower in my garden either, or a twelve foot long crocodile, but I would never say they are not worth having. Anyway, as I was saying, the soulangeana is a marvel and I am terribly fond of it, anew, every spring.  And much less worrying than a crocodile.

The first one or two tulips have opened, white ones, and while our yard does not exactly look like a Holland bulb breeding farm in spring I will say you just can’t have enough tulips. If I were just a tiny bit more undisciplined than I am, I would stick them in everywhere I could and to hell with the expense or the garish result, like an unsupervised child who got hold of the paintbox and went a bit mad about the place.

I put most of the amaryllises outside for the summer, though it is still a bit chilly, and began hardening off the hollyhocks and lilies that have been growing in a nice sunny window in the pantry. The other housemates all pitched in (without too much grousing) to bring all the patio stuff up from the basement and a great deal of cushion washing, birdbath scrubbing, patio sweeping and so on ensued. It was positively warm and a perfect summer gardening day and patio cleaning day. I planted the dahlias and canna lilies that had overwintered in the basement in tubs of dry peat moss, and I put the leftover cannas on the street corner, to give them away to passersby.  They didn’t last long and I have now done this often enough that I see their flaming red descendants all over town, and have the extreme satisfaction of knowing they all came from our garden originally.

I notice our three robust clematises – on the tuteur in the oval bed and on each of the two established grapevines – are leafing out fully and have gotten through the winter without being killed back or being catastrophically nibbled by rabbits or disturbed by the careless gardener pruning the grape vines…

The hostas and foxgloves I moved last weekend are very happy, and it looks as if they will survive their move. Right after I moved them, we had 40 straight hours of rain (just as we left to drive off to the Florida sunshine, great timing) and that was just what they needed. I see our jasmine is set to bloom for the first time, on our black iron garden arch that I got as a birthday present. We saw miles and miles of wild jasmine blooming along the interstate in South Carolina.

Also in South Carolina I saw wisteria blooming for the first time this spring.  I notice our three robust clematises – on the tuteur in the oval bed and on each of the two established grapevines – are leafing out fully and have gotten through the winter without being killed back or being catastrophically nibbled by rabbits or disturbed by the careless gardener pruning the grape vines, as they often have been, so that is a joy to the heart.

I twisted my ankle badly in my hurry around the yard yesterday, and that has hurt quite a bit. I must remember I am not a fourteen-year-old boy, and haven’t been for some time actually, and that in actual fact I am an old dog and must try to take it more cautiously, as injuries take forever to heal now. Annoying, that. Must remember to send in a complaint to the authorities.

Never mind, there is always cooking, and here I am going to impart a thing of great value.  It is well known among our acquaintances that She Who Must Be Obeyed makes the best guacamole on planet earth. Her secret is to keep it simple, and to make it the classic, traditional way they do in Mexico.

Classic Guacamole

4 ripe Hass avocados

1 lime

¼ cup yellow onion, very finely chopped

1½ tsp. garlic salt

¾ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Flour and corn tortillas, cut into bite-sized wedges

2 cups olive oil or canola oil

Fine ground sea salt

Hass avocados, the ordinary California avocados, are the best for guacamole, but other varieties will do in a pinch. The idea is to find very ripe ones but not quite soft. The perfectly ripe ones are still bright green inside; once they go a bit yellow, they are too far gone.  Peel and pit the avocados, reserving one pit, and put them in a large bowl. Add the juice of one lime; really dig your fingers into the lime and make sure you get all the lime juice. This adds flavor brightness to the guacamole and keeps it from getting brown; plus, the acid is a great foil to the salt and the creamy avocados. Add the chopped onion, garlic salt and pepper. Then mash the avocados briskly with a heavy spoon.  The idea is to smash them thoroughly until no chunks remain.  Then beat the mash firmly with the spoon (never an electric beater, please) until the texture is smooth. Spoon this into a ceramic bowl and embed the reserved avocado pit in the middle of it.  This is possibly an old wives’ tale, but it is said to keep the guacamole from getting brown.  Allow this to sit in the fridge for several hours, so the flavors mix.  Firmly resist the temptation at this point to spoil the authentic stuff with all the things people like to adulterate it with: salsa, hot sauce, cumin, sour cream, cream cheese, jalapenos, shredded cheese, cayenne pepper and so on. No, the real thing is what we want, isn’t it?

Pour the oil in a deep saucepan. Canola oil is fairly heart healthy and easier to work with, as it has a higher smoking temperature than olive oil, but olive oil is even healthier. We prefer olive oil, but it takes a bit of practice to fry with olive oil as it needs to be held just below its smoking temperature to really fry, and it is easy to cross the line. If you want to try the olive oil, the way you do it is slowly to increase the heat, throwing in tiny bits of tortilla as you do so. When the tortilla bits first start sizzling, the oil is hot enough and then you have to turn the heat down a bit and work quickly; if it starts to smoke, just take it off the fire for a minute. Or, for a compromise, use one cup of each. The mixed oil is very heart healthy and it has a more stable smoking temperature. So, suit yourself.  Anyway, fry the tortillas, and we like to make a bowl of each (flour and corn), to accommodate both preferences. Transfer them onto paper towel to drain, then sprinkle sea salt on them.  You can of course use tortilla chips from the grocery store, and Fritos brand chips are extremely good too, but homemade tortilla chips are not hard to make and they are the best.  As always when cooking with hot oil, be very aware of child safety if you have little ones around.

And, as long as you have some healthy oil in the frying pan, you can always make up a quick batch of:

Red Hot Sweet Potato Fries

3 large sweet potatoes

2 Tbsp. hot sauce

4 Tbsp. powdered sugar

8 Tbsp. ketchup

2 cups olive oil or canola oil

Fine ground sea salt

Peel the sweet potatoes and slice them into French fry strips. Put the hot sauce in a bowl; any hot sauce will do, but Tabasco is the classic version of this southern dish. Add the powdered sugar and ketchup, and combine well. There are many versions of the ketchup sauce, with some people preferring twice the amount of hot sauce and/or twice the amount of sugar, but we recommend you start with the proportions shown above and then you can dial the heat and sweetness up to your own taste.

Heat the oil (see note on hot oils above) and fry the sweet potatoes in batches, until they start to have a deep golden color, about 8-10 minutes. Make sure the oil is very hot; the oil should boil pretty furiously when you put the potatoes in. Sweet potatoes are not as simple as white potatoes to fry. You will know if you are under-cooking them if they are merely soft; the idea is to keep the heat high enough and keep frying them until they brown up a bit and are crispy. Drain them on paper towel and sprinkle with salt. If still not crispy enough, you can put them in the oven at 350 and dry them out a bit more.

Serve while still warm, with the hot sauce, either as an hors d’oeuvre or as a side dish. It goes well with lightly fried fish for a Ya-Ya version of fish and chips.


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.