Posts by James A. Baggett

James A. Baggett

My Recipe for Tomato Bliss

Don’t know about you, but I’m still deep in what I like to call Tomato Bliss. Enjoy it while it lasts because it comes but once a year: fresh-picked tomatoes all day, every day. It seems to commence the first week of August and proceeds all the way to the first hard frost. I wait all year for its sweet juice to drip down my unshaven chin. This year’s crop includes pretty little Yellow Pear Heirloom Cherries, dusky-pink Native American Cherokee Purple, extra-large Mortgage Lifter from West Virginia, and the prolific Mr. Stripey, a good-sized yellow striped heirloom with radiating lines of crimson from the stem. All of them go into a single pot. My beloved apple-green Le Creuset Dutch oven, but any large oven-safe saucepan will do. Cut every last one of your ripest tomatoes into reasonable pieces and add  them to a pot that’s been prepared with a generous amount of good olive oil. You want a depth of at least an inch or two of tomato bliss. Now add four fresh bay leaves. I’ve been pillaging the healthy Proven Winners’ Sicilian Sunshine Sweet Bay Laurel that’s still thriving, despite a season of intense drought, in a container in my front yard. Add three smushed cloves of garlic and a healthy dose of kosher salt. Place the whole thing uncovered in a 375° oven for an hour, stirring and mashing up the goodness every once in a while. This roasted tomato sauce becomes a fragrant and downright delicious caramelized nectar that’s the very essence of tomato goodness. Toss it with pasta. Use it to smother grilled fish or chicken. Sop it up with crusty bread. Add cream and puree it into a decadent soup. Trust me. It’s that easy, go ahead. Put that pile of tomatoes to work and join me in my tomato bliss.

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James A. Baggett

Medinilla magnifica?

While attending the OFA Short Course in Columbus, Ohio, a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon a really cool new plant. Well, new to me…and probably for you as well. Originally from the Phillipines, this truly magnificent houseplant—dubbed Medinilla magnifica—is the size of a medium hosta (or a poinsettia)and produces a handful of massive pink cascading fist-sized blossoms, “a graceful waterfall of flowers with angel’s wings and delicate magic pearls,” as the Canadian grower’s marketing materials describe it. Check it out at www.medinilla.ca. After all, they’re looking for distribution in the United States. I carried one home on the airplane in my carry-on and here it sits in my office blooming its head off. They say to treat it like an orchid: Bright, indirect light and allow it to dry out completely between waterings. What do you think?

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James A. Baggett

Luther Burbank: Boy Wizard

Luther Burbank (1849-1926) was one of America’s most famous and prolific horticulturists, developing some 800 new varieties of plants including the Shasta daisy and Burbank potato, a form of which, the Russet Burbank, is now the world’s most widely grown potato,” writes my friend Scott Kunst in the new edition of his online newsletter for Old House Gardens. “Burbank was also very interested in education, and I think any nature-lover will appreciate—and long for—the kind of education he describes here: ‘Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade, water lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pinecones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets; and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of education.’”

Which got me thinking about a series of books I especially loved as a child called The Childhood of Famous Americans (The Bobbs-Merrill Company). I worked my way through all of the orange-covered editions in the children’s section of our Carnegie Library in Carmel, Indiana. Today I pick them up whenever I find them at yard sales and used bookstores and I’ve gathered a nice-sized collection, including Florence Nightingale, Kit Carson, Paul Revere, and, of course, Luther Burbank.

Here’s a snippet from Luther Burbank: Boy Wizard by Olive W. Burt (1948):
“It was a summer afternoon in the summer of 1856. The Burbank children and their friends were playing hide-and-seek around the old Burbank house. But Luther was playing another kind of hide-and-seek. His playmates were not boys and girls but honeybees! As he crouched in the deep clover of the meadow, hidden from the other children, he noticed something he never had before. A big fat honeybee came zooming over the wall, stopped on a blossom and pushed its hairy body deep into the cup of the flower. Luther watched it fly a little way to light on another clover blossom. The greedy bee flew right over the daisies and the beautiful red roses. Luther could not understand. At dinner that night his cousin Levi told him how bees pollenize just one kind of flower at a time. And Luther had his first experience with a mystery of nature. From that time on he was forever watching the flowers and soil and insects for other mysteries and getting new ideas for better plants and easier ways to make things grow.”

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James A. Baggett

Sweet Violets

Country Gardens friend and cookbook author Nancy Baggett (no relation, really) visited us last week to produce a story on sweet violet recipes with our crackerjack crew in the Better Homes and Gardens Test Kitchen. She made violet syrup, candied violets, violet marshmallows, a violet salad with violet vinaigrette, and a violet fizz cocktail, so we needed a LOT of violets for the photo shoot. Since my neighborhood is blessed with more than a handful of nature-loving children, I recruited my friend 11-year-old friend Caroline (a.k.a. Poppy) and her friend Maggie into service the afternoon before collecting hundreds and hundreds of violet blossoms in jelly jars.  Here they are in my refrigerator.

Violas—violets, violas, and pansies—are popular edible flowers for good reason. They are a cinch to grow and they actually taste good. The pungent perfume of some varieties of Viola odorata adds inimitable floral sweetness to desserts, fruit salads, and teas while the milder pealike flavor of Viola tricolor and most other viola combine easily well with sweet and savory dishes. The heart-shaped leaves of Viola odorata provide a free source of greens throughout the growing season. Look for our story in the Spring 2014 issue of Country Gardens.

 

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James A. Baggett

Grow Anywhere Tour

The Burpee Home Gardens Grow Anywhere Tour rolled into town Wednesday and Country Gardens art director Nick Crow and I caught up with them at the Moulton Extended Learning Center here in Des Moines. The Grow Anywhere Tour launched in March and is traveling 10,000 miles to deliver 13,000 plants and 30,000 pounds of produce to 23 cities with food deserts or areas with limited access to fresh produce.

The location for each Grow Anywhere Tour event was voted on via Facebook earlier this year by community members, students, and staff at local schools and community organizations. It was so cool to watch as neighbors and school children picked out a tomato or a pepper or a cucumber plant, fill a five-gallon container with compost, and plant up their new plant to take home. Everybody also got to take home a shopping bag of fresh produce as well as organic fertilizer. It was wonderful to see so many folks turn out on a cold and blustery afternoon in May and it was nice to catch up with our friends Jerry Gorchels and Katie Rotella —that’s me and Katie (above) from Ball Horticultural who have partnered with Burpee Home Gardens on this impressive program. By helping communities explore the basics of gardening and demonstrating simple ways to grow food, Burpee Home Gardens is showing the county just how easy it is to grow anywhere

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James A. Baggett

Suddenly Succulents

Our friend and contributing editor Debra Lee Baldwin dropped by for a visit here at our headquarters in Des Moines last week. Debra is nothing if not passionate about succulents and she thoughtfully brought me this sweet little succulent boutonniere that she made for me.

Debra has a new book on succulents coming out any day now called Succulents Simplified (Timber Press), in which she demystifies these popular low-water beauties. Debra’s previous books include Designing with Succulents and Succulent Container Gardens. We discussed upcoming stories for Country Gardens and I gave her and Mark Schneider (the new Executive Director of the Iowa Arboretum) a tour of the Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden, our Test Kitchen, and photo studios, before we enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Des Moines Arts Center with our editorial apprentice Kelsey Schirm and former CG editorial intern Kelly Norris, who is now the horticulture manager for the Greater Des Moines Botanical Center.

What could be better than spending a rainy day over a bowl of hot soup with green-hearted friends in a building designed by Eliel Saarinen surrounded with artwork by Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe, and John Singer Sargent?

Learn more about the best succulent plants for your home.

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