Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.

Even though my grandfather David Augustus passed away when I was three weeks shy of my sixth birthday, I’ve always felt a particularly strong affinity with him—and not just because I’m the only one of the four boys in my family to be given his surname as my middle name. Born in 1907, he studied law at Benjamin Harrison Law School in Indianapolis but couldn’t afford to take the bar exam. The son of a carpenter and cabinetmaker, he built his first home for his wife and baby daughter in 1938. He spent the rest of his life building fine homes in and around Indianapolis and in 1958 leased the abandoned Monan Railroad Station in Broad Ripple and converted it into a “sausage and cheese shop,” which my grandmother Lee ran for the next 25 years. The more I discover about my grandfather, the more I find we have in common. For instance, after returning from a visit to The Roycroft Campus in East Aurora New York decades ago, I was telling my parents about the Arts & Crafts community and its charismatic founder Elbert Hubbard and my mom went to her bookshelf and pulled out my grandfather’s copy of Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook. Inside the front closet of every home my grandfather built, he placed an engraved brass plaque that reads, “On that which is built well I will proudly put my name.” That’s the same way I feel with every issue of Country Gardens.

Too often we think of nature as something we have to seek out, a remote place far from the city limits. But nature is, in fact, much closer than we realize. Check out these recently published titles that encourage us to pause for a moment and recognize the natural world that is truly teeming all around us, even in our most urban spaces. And by doing so, perhaps we’ll all realize that ecology is not just the domain of scientists but something we can all practice and enjoy.
Crafting with Nature: Grow or Gather Your Own Supplies for Simple Handmade Crafts, Gifts & Recipes (Page Street Publishing, $21.99) by Amy Renea: This impressive compilation of DIY crafts, recipes, and gifts made with natural materials you can grow or gather yourself will take you on a journey to collect plants from the woods, the backyard, the garden, and even the pantry. Renea provides detailed tutorials and recipes for projects like making perfume, crafting wooden buttons, preparing natural dyes for easy paper flowers, canning your own fruit jam, handcrafting wreaths, using seedpods to make earrings, and even making your own coconut oil for lotions and hand scrubs.
Hello Nature: Draw, Colour, Make and Grow (Laurence King Publishing, $17.95) by Nina Chakrabarti: Like her previous books, Hello Nature is a cleverly guided activity book that encourages users to observe the patterns and designs found in nature. Part scrapbook and part journal, the book invites readers to experience the seasons through art and on the page. Users are asked to color or finish off an illustration, or to design something entirely new. The book includes educational close-ups of the rings of a tree and the anatomy of a flower. Gratifying activities include making a daisy chain, an herbarium, twig sculptures, and growing sprout heads.
The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling (Heyday Books, $35) written and illustrated by John Muir Laws: A potent combination of art, science, and boundless enthusiasm, this latest book from Laws (The Washington Post calls him “a modern Audubon”) is a how-to guide for becoming a better artist and a more attentive naturalist. While the books advice will improve the skills of already accomplished artists, the emphasis on seeing, learning, and feeling will make this book valuable to anyone interested in the natural world, no matter how rudimentary their artistic abilities.
Cabinet of Curiosities: Collecting and Understanding the Wonders of the Natural World (Workman, $24.95) by Gordon Grice: This lavishly illustrated introduction to the natural history and the joys of being an amateur scientist and collector seems especially suited for educators as well as young people who need to unplug and get outside. It’s packed with fascinating facts and tips on identifying, finding, and preserving nature’s treasures, from flowers and butterflies to fossil fish and space rocks. More than that, it explains the workings of the natural world.

My holiday cacti never bloom when I want them to. Mind you, I’ve tried to coordinate when I bring them indoors from their summer vacation on a ledge of my front porch, but I’m always a bit late and the cooler evening temperatures of late August and September—as well as the shortening days—trigger my holiday cacti into flower bud much earlier than I want them to. I usually have Christmas cactus in bloom in time for Halloween. That’s why I don’t call them Christmas cactus anymore: they bloom anytime between the holidays of Thanksgiving and Easter.

Despite its name, the Christmas cactus is not a desert plant. Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) and Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) are popular, fall- and winter-flowering houseplants native to the tropical rainforests of South America, and are available in a wide variety of colors including red, rose, purple, lavender, peach, orange, cream, and white. These Schlumbergera species grow as epiphytes among tree branches in shady rain forests. That’s part of my collection in the photo. Many of these were started from cuttings I took from Martha Stewart’s personal collection of tropical cacti in the greenhouse at her former home in Connecticut (I was working on one of her books and her former gardener, Andrew Beckman, gave me permission) more than 25 years ago. So you know these are long-lived plants.

So how do you ensure they bloom for Christmas? In fall, night temperatures around 50–55 degrees will trigger Christmas cactus to form flower buds, so get them in the house before then. Next, six to eight weeks before Christmas, place the plant in a dark space with a temperature around 60 degrees for 12 hours each day. Water only when the top inch or so of the soil is dry to the touch. You should get flowers right on time for the holiday.

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday of the year. For most of my adult life I have spent the day with close friends, playing Yahtzee in front of a roaring fire in my living room, sipping good wine listening to good music (Neil Young’s Harvest for starters), cooking (I’m quite fond of Ina Garten’s Sagaponack Corn Pudding and Mehta Given’s Pumpkin Pie) and taking my good dogs on an extra long, brisk walk. I’ve been saving a case of wine (half 2014 Celebrate Muller-Thurgau and half 2012 Pinot Noir Estate from Kramer Vineyards in Gaston, Oregon) just for this occasion. I did most of my shopping over the weekend, but I still need to pick up an 18-pound fresh turkey and bread from the bakery for dressing. I noticed this morning that there’s still fresh oregano and thyme and parsley spilling from the windowboxes that line my drive. Of all of the qualities of Thanksgiving, the power to draw people together is among its most sustaining. Whether friends sharing a meal or scattered relatives gathering together, here’s to Thanksgiving and its lasting message of peace and togetherness.

Could not let today pass without celebrating my good dog Scout’s 16th birthday. She has been by my side, through thick and thin, for longer than I could have ever hoped. And she’s the best friend I’ve ever had in my life. She is a registered rough-coated Jack Russell Terrier (from Medford, New Jersey). A few facts about Scout: She LOVES water. She jumped into the frigid Atlantic at four months old and she has even jumped off a boat into the Hudson River. Once, when I took her in the car with me to the grocery store, she got out of the car (the shoulder strap had kept the door from shutting securely), made her way through the busy parking lot, through two sets of automatic doors, and walked up and down the aisles of the store until she—tail wagging—found me. Scout turned 11 on 11/11/11. She used to love to chase rocks. Not just any rocks. She would meticulously find just the right rock from our next-door-neighbor’s driveway and bring it to me, excited for me to throw it right back into the driveway, where she would search and smell until she found the exact same rock. This would repeat itself endlessly. Sometimes she brought her favorite rocks into the house. I still have her collection of rocks. She has kissed many famous folks, including Ricki Lake, Kyle MacLachlan, Sandra Bernhard, and Isaac Mizrahi. Once on a flight to St. Louis, she escaped her carrier and had to sit in my lap (in first class!) for the rest of the flight. We were seated across from Bob Costas, and at one point, he asked me if he could hold her for a while. She loves most things that begin with the letter “p”: pepperoni, potato chips, peas, pretzels, peanuts, pistachios, you get the idea. When she could hear better, Noras Jones’ song “Don’t Know Why” would make Scout howl. And, yes, she was named in honor of the famous tomboy in To Kill a Mockingbird (and my other terrier is appropriately named Finch). So this evening, we’ll take an extra-long walk. Then she’ll be having fresh rotisserie chicken and roasted sweet potatoes for supper. And I’ll let her give me one more stinky kiss before we go to bed.

Here in central Iowa we’ve had an especially long and luxurious autumn. It’s Election Day (have you been practicing saying Madam President Clinton?) and there are still plenty of colorful leaves on the trees that haven’t yet fallen. While walking my good dogs Scout and Finch yesterday, I started picking up colorful leaves that caught my eye and by the time I made it home I’d accumulated a kaleidoscopic collection. Here’s what I found, including sugar maple, redbud, hickory, tulip, viburnum (trilobum and nudum), Japanese maple, spirea, ginkgo, and white oak. My very own fireworks celebration!

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