Winter In and Out by Bobbie Brittingham

It is amazing how much time and energy plus money that it takes to pull off the Christmas Holidays. Heaving all the decorations out of the attic, garage, basement or from under the bed is only the mere start of this annual hectic time. The amount of strategy and planning is not something that is in my daily routine. Trying to keep some of the hallowed family traditions alive is demoralizing. Some have grudgingly made their way to my memory’s historical archives of Christmases past. I have to utilize every brain cell I have to get only the most important and reverent of treasured traditions accomplished. Then within an a few days it all has to be untangled, re-wrapped, re-boxed, repaired, and restored or rather re-stuffed back in its obscure hiding place.

Now that Christmas is packed away, and the house is in some state of normal caucus it may seem a little uninteresting or lacking some visual interest. It will be a long time until spring brings some color to the garden for you to bring into the house. The outside landscape which now is a depressing gray and tan and brown. Lovely for the spirit. The solution is to bring something living into the house. Of the animal, vegetable, and mineral choices, the vegetable seems a less complicated choice. Many of the garden centers, if open, will have a selection of green or blooming houseplants for that touch of life in the winter home. Unless you received one as a gift or bought the traditional poinsettia. To me, poinsettias are a plant for a two weeks and then can go to the heavily endowed plant heaven. Trying to keep and bring them to an adequate blooming phase next year is not worth the extreme effort required to do so. MUCH easier and better results to purchase a new one next year. If you want to try something more fun and rewarding, just go to the vegetable bin. There you can find many items that can be seduced into growing inside the house during the winter. A sweet potato suspended in or just touching some water will send roots into the water and then a vine will begin to grow, and it will not stop for a long time. The pretty purpled leaves love the sun and will continue to ramble where you lead them. A regular white potato will give some good results, but I prefer the color of the sweet potato. If you use a glass container then, you can keep an eye on the water level, and children will delight in watching the roots growing.

Another vegetable is an avocado pit. Arrange three or four toothpicks around the side of the pit and suspend over water. It will sprout, and a green tree trunk will start to grow. It can be potted in soil after it has developed several leaves. I know some people who have kept these going for years. I am not sure if they have had a harvest yet, but just the fun of growing it is enough reward. I have heard onions, carrots, and even a pineapple can all be handled in similar manners. These are fun activities to help bring a little life into the home. Somehow just adding some living green or color to your inside spaces will lift and brighten the internal spirit.

Now, on the other hand, if you have started to force some daffodil, tulip or amaryllis bulbs you have those to look forward to bloom inside. Or, just buy a handsome new green or blooming (favorite – orchid) houseplant that are readily available at many stores. Many don’t cost too much and can give months of pleasure. In the summer, you can move the houseplants to your outside living spaces. In any event to brighten your public and private living spaces that can become forlorn after the bright and sparkly decorations of Christmas are removed add a fresh lovely houseplant or a blooming plant They will instantly make you realize that spring will come even if the weather outside is frightful.

I often walk in the garden during the somewhat warmer days of winter looking for a little life of some form that will show me the garden has not gone to bed forever. This is a good time to look at your garden and ask questions. Questions that help achieve the look you want. If you don’t know what look you want then, it might be the time to decide. Even the most beautiful natural garden has had a little bit of help to get it there. Sometimes mother nature gets a little carried away and needs to be reined in. With any good garden, there need to be some architectural structure. These are called the backbones or BONES of the garden. They give the garden a solid feeling. They are supporting the rest of the plants in a visual pleasing, balanced way. These features can be manmade such as a fence, columns, arbor, gate, a large urn or pot, a bird bath, anything that will give the eye something solid to look at. The bones can be of plant material such as evergreens, ornamental grasses that have been left with their blossoms on and even the trunks of trees and shrubs can add that visual interest with their structure and bark texture. These can all add visual interest when the winter season clamps down and not much else is in the landscape.

So now is a good time to take stock of your garden’s bones. If you don’t see these bones/visual interest it will present an opportunity to explore some solutions. The many nursery and garden catalogues that have started to arrive with their enticing pictures and descriptions should enable you to find some answers. They are always filled with ideas for containers, border designs, problem area solutions and plant companions. I caution not to be combined into think that your garden will look like the pictures. Seldom does anyone’s garden look like the picture. Not even the garden the picture was taken in looks like the picture. They are all Photoshopped. But the catalogues can offer many different and exciting ideas that you can adapt to your own situation. Dreaming about how you would love your garden to look is a wonderful way to spend the afternoon in a sunny spot looking out the window at your picture perfect garden.


The Disease of Bulbitus by Bobbie Brittingham

Now I lay them down so deep.
Waiting to wake from winter’s sleep.
Bringing forth a dazzling bright sight.
When spring breaks thru the long dark night.

Now you have to laugh at that. Really now. Come on, that is a ridiculous poem.

Yes, I agree. It is bad! But the reality is that planting bulbs in the fall is one of the most rewarding things anyone can do in the garden. The daffodil, tulip, lily, iris, crocus, hyacinth, scilla, allium, cassia, Muscari, are relatively easy to grow. The effort put into the correct planting is tripled when they start to poke thru the ground and the anticipation grows with each day as you watch them stretch their leaves toward the warming sun, enjoying the freedom from the cold. It is almost too late to plant now but as long as the ground is not frozen and you can get a spade in it you can put those little buggers in the ground.

I have been working diligently on the multitude of boxes of bulbs that started arriving in September. Why did I not heed the admonishment of my friends and NOT order so many bulbs? I CAN”T. I have this disease called Bulbitus. It is not my fault. I inherited this awful affliction. There is no cure. I guess I wouldn’t take a cure even if there were one. To me bulbs are really wonderful. Looking the catalogues and dreaming how beautiful they would look growing in my garden. When I come across a new one, it casts this mesmerizing spell over me, and I have to give in this addiction. Maybe I will order just a few. OK! That will hold me. Maybe a few more of the same variety or even a different one, because you should have more than a few to make a statement, and really, that is what I want anyway. So I add a few more to the order. Then I turn the page, and the same thing happens. I can’t get away from it. So I give into this stronghold the colorful bulb catalogue pages have on me. OK next…

Remember this started in September or really in March and April. The devious bulb company knows that as the spring garden starts to bloom, it is the best time to start grooming a gardener with this Bulbitus condition. They know we see where there is an empty space that should have a different color or size bloom to make the garden look like their pictures. NOT !!!! …. Never has any garden of mine looked like the pictures, and most likely never will. But these bulb companies keep sending the catalogue just to feed the addiction.

Now nearly December or rather it is December, and I have just planted the last of my bulbs. You must understand too that I have had this disease for a long time, and since I have not the slightest idea how to cure myself ( unless the bank forecloses ) the UPS , Airborne, and USPS, keep bring me these heavy boxes that I know can’t be for me because I already have several hundred or very possibly thousands . Must be a mistake. But a lovely mistake anyway … I will accept it.

Besides planting bulbs in the garden, I have planted most of the large pots that had annuals in them. You cab layer different bulbs in one pot. Start with the largest and latest blooming on the first layer about 6/8 inches deep and cover with soil and then build up another layer of different bulbs. Cover up each layer with soil. The earliest and smallest should be the last layer. Covering all the layers with soil, a good drink, and a little mulch or leaves will keep this pot in good condition. Leave it outside for the winter with a little protection. And then as the bulbs start to emerge in the early spring, bring the pot into a prominent place where you can watch them bloom their heads off. It is a little gem of a garden just for your enjoyment.

You can also force some bulbs to bloom earlier than normal by doing the same method and bring them into the garage or another like place as soon as they start to show a little green thru the soil. Keep cool and moist, but not freezing for several days to an about a week, then move the pot inside to a sunny location and have the fun of beating mother nature to the punch.
The gorgeous amaryllis is another great bulb to grow and takes near to nothing as far as work. The only thing is not to plant it too deep and not to over water it. They can rot easily with too much water. After it blooms cut the stalk off and treat it like any other house plant. In the late spring, you can put it outside, water and fertilize as a good gardener should. Then in the fall cut the leaves off, let it dry out in a cool dark location for a resting period of six to eight weeks or more if you forget where it is, as I always do. Then start to water a little leaving in a cool place with a little more light. When green shows again take inside, and it will bloom all over again.

The amaryllis will be ok in the same pot for about two years but will outgrow it by a third. It could even have a few off spring attached ( as they usually do ) to the mother plant. These can be removed and planted the same as the parent plant. It will take a year or two for these young ones to bloom, but they will. THEN if you keep this up you too will have more than you know what to do with. I have found a good solution to this dilemma. They will do very well in a pot or in the ground for a striking summer bloom. Plant as you would any other summer bulb. Grow in a large pot with other big leave or blooming plants, and you will have an exotic look for the summer pots.

If there is a remedy, therapy or treatment for Bulblitus that is available please don’t tell me. I completely enjoy this affliction, and it has such beautiful consequence.

Revenge on the Chestnut by Bobbie Brittingham

The word revenge might be a little too strong for this situation, but it really felt good to say it. There are several different kind of chestnuts. The color of a horse for one. I had a beautiful big 17 hand horse named Shannon when I was a young woman many years ago, but I still can see how bright his coat shinned after giving him a bath as he stood in the sun. He had a lovely bright chestnut color. I loved it. Horses also have a small hard scaly growth on their legs called a chestnut. There is the chestnut wood used in fine furniture, and it has beautiful rich grain to it. A woman with chestnut color hair as Maureen O’Hara had, to be envied by many. THEN there is the chestnut tree. A tree that produces sought after edible nuts. More about them later. I want to inform you about the beauty of this tree. It is rather a medium to fast growing deciduous tree that can eventually reach 75 to 100 feet. In the early 20th century, a fungal blight carried by a hitch hiker almost wiped out the American Chestnut. They are breeding them now in hopes that they can create a tree that will be resistant to this deadly blight. Large oval serrated leaves that cover wide sweeping arching branches. The bark has an interesting rough grey-brown bark. The spring brings forth a beautiful white cascading candle-like blossom, and it has a slight sweet fragrance. They were so prominent on the Appalachian Mountain tops that when they were in bloom it was said to look like snow on the tops of the mountains. These blossoms drop and will create drifts that can clog the gutters.

Close up ChestnutThe architectural branches add great interest to the winter landscape too. They are a very lovely tree with many attributes, but they do have a major major (that is a double major) drawback. Word of caution, my language and tone might change as I reveal the very despicable side of this tree. In the fall these stately trees drop a round, hard, thorny, sharply, bristly, prickly, spiky, covered ball. They are treacherous to step on and it will go thru a flip – flop. Yes, I really do know about this from firsthand experience. The tree should never, ever, be planted near any path, door or opening within 100 yards of where inhabitants or cohabitants are living. Mine is !!!!! Located on the drive side of the house, right where anyone who gets out of a car steps on them, and I walk almost daily. This is my real reason for the extreme disdain I have for this particular chestnut tree.

But the chestnut does have a little secret inside these tennis size monstrous balls. There is a sweet delicious buttery nut. This is the first year I took the challenge, or rather an attempt at doing something with them. After all, I had to find a way to wage revenge on the tree. I really didn’t want to cut it down since I love my trees and have planted over 87 trees in three years on a few acres. This seemed like a reasonable excuse to salvage some decent kind of reward from the continuous raking and cleaning up these nasty —- spiny, prickly things that the devil grew. The little nut inside will luckily loosen from the surrounding barricade and to descend with a thud to the ground. The only thing is that between the squirrels and me was an hourly dash to grab Chestnut treewhat we could before the other did. I had collected a nice bag of these exquisite chestnuts and decided this would be my revenge. These are the nuts that romantic, holiday songs have been written, and people pay dearly for from a street vendor. They are of culinary fame from soup to, well, nuts is one word, but I will say just deserts. So I looked up on Goggle how to roast these prized gems. I bought a special roasting pan and a special tool for cutting the ends in a cross pattern. I invested all of only $68.00 at Amazon. This proves they really do have everything.

I invited a friend over to enter into this process with me. I was making sure that if I were poisoned from this experiment, someone could tell my children how brave I was. I followed the directions from Miss Martha (you know THE one) and opened a bottle of white wine to help with digestion. The special frying pan was scattered with about fifteen prepared nuts. I turned the gas on to medium and stood back in admiration of this fulfilling moment. Soon the cross started to peel away from the inside treasure. All was waiting for REVENGE. Some butter was melted, and some salt was ground and then the moment of complete ecstatic REVENGE !!!! YES– YES– YES. Almost as good as When Harry Met Sally.

Now you can make up your own mind about whether you want a Chestnut tree . If I had my choice, I would never plant one close to the house. I would certainly plant one just far enough out of the way so that it does not cause undo pain, but still close enough that I can race the squirrels.


A Pear Tree and Pansies by Bobbie Brittingham

I know that you all have had this question asked before as I have and I have tried to think of a different answer to it but for some reason I always end up back at the same time in my childhood with the answer. What and when is your first memory of gardening?

I have lived in this area of the Eastern Shore almost my entire life. A few exceptions, going away to boarding school and college, and two years in Elizabeth City, North Carolina when I was first married. Then I returned back to the Shore after those two years. So I have seen many changes and have many memories of my life in the garden. And I do say life sincerely.

I was very fortunate to have had a mother who loved gardening and was a rabid propagator. She could start anything from seed, bulbs or by cuttings. Even collecting camellia seeds to cool in the refrigerator for a year or two and then germinating them, raising them with constant care until they were large enough to go into her shade garden that she had created out of an empty corn field. Now in someone else’s care, they are 20 to 30 feet, producing a spring display that could rival any North Carolina garden. Unfortunately, she is not here to see them.

photo (1)I was close to maybe seven or eight years old when I would go with her in the early spring to a couple of home-built cold frames under a huge twisted, eerie old pear tree. She would slide the heavy glass paneled tops over the back side of the frames to reveal hundreds of bright, cheerful, happy faced pansies.

Now these were the real pansies, each with a distinctive face and personality. Not like the meager, sullen ones on today’s market benches. We would situate ourselves so that I was to her left and she was in front of the frames. With her precious trowel worn down to a sharp blade, she would carefully dig each blooming pansy out cradled in a square block of dirt. Then she would hand it carefully to me to wrap in newspaper, in a special way so that the ends could be tucked into secure each plant. I would be so diligent and conscientious about my job. I wanted it to be exactly right because Mother would check them all over to be sure I did it right, and I had an arterial motive…..

In Easton many years ago, there was a small grocery store on Harrison Street across from the Tidewater Inn. It was Johnny’s Grocery Store. At least that is the name I recall. It was a real old fashion store that you left your list with clerk, and they would fill the order for pick up later. Well, Johnny would pay me 10 cents for every pansy plant I brought in.

Now I did not get rich with this project but since my mother had done all the work of preparing the cold frames, seeding the pansies, weeding, watering keeping them cozy and all I had to do was sit and wrap them in newspaper, I thought this was a fair price.

My piggy bank never really overflowed but I enjoyed that special one on one time that my mother as we sat under that old pear tree wrapping pansies and just talking about anything and everything a young mind might come up with. To this day every time I smell that delightfully fresh pansy perfume I remember the pear tree and my mother’s worn trowel handing me a precious pansy.