Look what’s putting on a show in my front yard here in Des Moines, Iowa—and inspiring gasps from neighborly passersby. Rhododendron calendulaceum, also known as the Flame Azalea, is one of our most spectacular native shrubs. The flowers are larger than most of the natives, measuring from 1.5 to 2.5 inches across, and come in a wide range of colors from clear yellow, through shades of orange, to brilliant red. First collected by A. Michaux in 1795 from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, this species has a wide range of distribution from southern New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio as a northern limit, southward through the Appalacian mountains to northern Georgia. In late May and June, entire hillsides can be bathed with brilliant color as these spectacular azaleas come into bloom. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Helmrichs.
Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge, stars of Cooking Channel’s The Fabulous Beekman Boys (and winners of the Amazing Race), are accidental cheesemakers: Just after they bought their 200-year-old upstate New York farmhouse—built by Revolutionary War veteran William Beekman—a neighboring farmer needed a home for his flock of 88 goats. Suddenly Josh and Brent found themselves offering up their land—and making lots of goat cheese. The handsome couple was here in Des Moines to meet with colleagues (we publish their quarterly magazine called Beekman 1802 Almanac; the next issue goes on sale May 10th). After a tour of the Meredith Photo Studios, the Better Homes and Gardens Test Kitchen, and the Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden, we enjoyed a delightful dinner together at Proof. That’s Brent (left) and Josh (right) sharing the garden love with me.
The Country Gardens team couldn’t be more proud of our former editorial intern Kelly Norris on the occasion of the publication of his beautiful new book, Plants with Style (Timber Press). Last week, we attended a reception for Kelly at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Center (GDMBC)—where he’s the Director of Horticulture—to celebrate. That’s Kelly, above, flanked by Stephanie Jutila, President and CEO of GDMBG, and CG editor James A. Baggett. As Kelly puts it, “A garden is the best way to savor life on earth.” Let him guide you to the plants that will provide a richer, more fulfilling connection between you and your own patch of soil.
My brothers and I colored our way through buckets of Crayola Crayons—we simply called them “cranz” in 1960s Indianapolis—but mostly we contained them in old cigar or shoe boxes. And the black ones were always well worn down to hard-to-hold stubs. We colored in coloring books at Sunday school, we sharpened our favorite colors with the built-in sharpener on the coveted Crayola 64-pack, and we were especially careful to stay within the lines for the special ones we drew for our grandfather in the hospital because we weren’t allowed to visit. If you were a child of the 60s, you know the distinctive waxy smell of a box of just-opened Crayons as well as I do. So I have to smile at the current trend of publishing coloring books designed for fully grown adults. Why is coloring suddenly a craze amongst grownups? For starters, coloring books are thoroughly therapeutic. Still, that doesn’t quite explain what motivates adults to color rather than, say, draw or paint or just doodle. Is it about nostalgia? Or do stressed-out adults feel comforted by the infantilizing nature of returning to an activity for small children? Is it about ceding control of a task, or making something with zero pressure? Or is it something else entirely? Three new grown-up coloring books have recently arrived on my desk that are of special interest to garden-lovers:
• Color the Natural World (“a Timber Press coloring book”) by Zoe Keller features intricately drawn plants and animals ($12.95).
• Every Little Thing (“a Flat Vernacular coloring book” from Potter Style) by Payton Coswell Turner is a mesmerizing hand-drawn coloring book that includes a parade of woodland plants and creatures ($15.99).
• I <Heart> Coloring Flowers (from Price Stern Sloan) is a pocket-size coloring book of nothing but flowers illustrated by Lizzie Preston and Jane Ryder-Gray ($9.99).
Sometimes, gardening projects simply fail. Hail, deer, squash borers, hurricanes—peril can strike at any time. For the home gardener, this can be disappointing. If you are growing something particular for a magazine photo shoot, then you need a Plan B.
This happened to me last summer with the popcorn patch I had planted for Easy Garden Projects™ magazine. Oh sure, the 100 cornstalks were pretty and green and getting tall at midsummer. Then a gang of raccoons found the new ears of popcorn and began gorging. I tried a repellent, sprinkling it liberally around the perimeter of the patch and through the rows. Then life got in the way, and when I returned in late August to check on the patch, it was gone. A mess of broken stalks and ravaged husks.
We could have cancelled the project, but I had a backup plan.
Tom and Diane Decker, farmers in Calhoun County, Iowa, run a non-GMO popcorn farm. One brilliantly fine autumn day my brother and I went to visit the Decker farm and pick up some ears of popcorn. Combine tractors were just starting their soybean harvest in surrounding fields, and the air had that Midwestern scent of dry husks. Tom and Diane greeted us and graciously gave us a tour of everything from the fields where they grow the popcorn to the white metal sheds where they store and package the dried kernels. Their popcorn business, Farmer’s Best, is a true mom-and-pop business. They do everything from growing to packaging and driving the popcorn to regional stores. It hasn’t been the most profitable venture, but Tom was looking for a way to diversify. And he found it.
Diane sent us off with a good supply of Farmer’s Best popcorn, a bushel of popcorn ears, and several long stalks, which I kept whole by threading them through the seats of my car for the trip back to the office. A few days later, we re-created a popcorn patch in the Better Homes & Gardens Test Garden®, and I sat down to shell the dried popcorn kernels from the cob under the camera’s watchful lens. Yes, it wasn’t the popcorn I had planted last May, but a magazine gardener has to get a little creative now and then. A humane raccoon trap wouldn’t have hurt, either.
For ordering Farmer’s Best popcorn, go to www.farmersbestpopcorn.com
Less than 24 hours ago I paraded through the North West appointment gate (near 17th and Pennsylvania Avenue) and onto the White House grounds. Of course, I was not alone— and we were on a mission. Photographer Bob Stefko, art director Nick Crow, contributing editor Debra Prinzing, and I were in Washington, D.C., to produce a story on the White House Kitchen Garden and we were escorted by a press secretary from the Office of the First Lady, a White House intern, and a very friendly Secret Service Officer. The garden was bursting with every imaginable edible: figs and raspberries and Cinderella pumpkins and Delicata squash and beans and okra and carrots and sweet potatoes and cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes and zucchini and sweet bay and radishes and rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano. You will see the results in the Spring 2016 issue of Country Gardens, but in the meantime, here’s a snapshot of the hot and sweaty (and proud) CG team. And, no, we didn’t get to meet Michelle. Or Bo or Sunny for that matter.