Thursday, October 4, 2007



If you don't have any perennials in your garden, you need to get some. Now! Evergreens, grass and annuals may be nice and tidy, but they are boring! They look the same all day, every day. I grew up hating what I thought of as "yard work". In fact, it wasn't unusual for my parents to use yard work as a form of punishment (please promise me you will never do that to your kids!) I have vivid memories of my sisters and I having to push our baby buggies around the yard, filling them with those nasty, stinking horse apples that fell off of our bois d'arc trees, and getting that sticky, milky white stuff that oozed from them all over us. It wasn't until Annamarie Mootz moved in next door to us that I discovered the difference between yard work and gardening. Now, that Annamarie was a character, with a capitol "C", and her garden was like nothing I'd ever seen before. It was full of native plants, herbs and perennials. It seemed as if every time I stepped out of the door, she was calling out "Becky! You have got to come over here and see this!" Or smell this, or taste this... Before long, I was hooked. Next thing you know, I'm wearing Birkenstocks, have three compost bins going in the back yard, and have gone back to school to study horticulture. Now I can't resist a daily stroll to check on "everyone" in the garden, just to see what they've been up to since I saw them last, and I almost hate to leave town, for fear of missing something! If you have perennials in your garden, there is always something interesting going on!

If you are new to gardening, here is what I call the lazy (but patient) man's method of creating a new flower bed. If you are not in a big hurry to get your new bed planted, you can let the forces of nature do some of the work for you. Begin by marking off the area where the new bed will go, either with stakes or with some of that day-glo spray paint made for grass. Next, spread a thick layer of newspaper, or a single layer of corrugated cardboard, on top of the grass in the entire area, overlapping edges slightly. If it's windy, weight the paper with rocks to keep it from blowing away. Use only plain newspaper pages, nothing glossy. Dampen the paper lightly with the hose sprayer, then spread it with a three-inch layer of municipal or homemade compost, if you can get it. If not, use a blend of half topsoil and half composted manure. Now comes the hard part. Just sit back and wait - for five or six months. As the newspaper decomposes, it smothers the grass and weeds below, which also decompose, and you end up with a nice bed full of earthworms, without a lot of back-breaking digging! If you start in fall, your bed will be ready for planting by spring, and vice versa. I know it sounds too good to be true, but I've done it at several houses now, and it worked really well.

Because I didn't turn into "Mother Earth" (as my siblings now call me) until I was in my 40's, all of the horrible mistakes I made in the early days, and all of the money I wasted, are still fairly fresh in my memory. Here is what I learned, the hard way:

1. Just because your local nursery sells a plant, that does not guarantee that it will do well in your area. Buy a good gardening book that is written by someone who actually gardens in your part of the country, and follow their recommendations. There is no such thing as a black thumb - just lack of information! Many times I went to the garden center in late April, and bought a bunch of pansies or dianthus, or snap dragons, because the nursery was full of them and they looked gorgeous. Not long after I got them planted, we had our first days with temps in the 90's, and all of the sudden my new plants looked like crap. I thought it was my fault, and I must have a black thumb. Later I learned that all those plants like cool weather and hate heat, and the nursery really should have warned me that they would poop out on me as soon as it got hot. So, be very cautious about buying plants when nurseries are transitioning from one season to the next, and ask lots of questions!

2. Look closely at the maximum size listed on the plant's label. That cute little herb in the four-inch pot may be a four-foot gargantuan before summer is over with, so allow for that in your planning.

3. Most perennials go dormant in the winter, and more or less disappear from the flower bed. Never fear, they will be back! If you mix some evergreen herbs and some small shrubs or ornamental grasses in with your perennials, then your bed won't be completely empty come winter. Best thing is to mark the spot where the dormant perennials are though, so you dont forget about them.

4. If a plant is defined as extremely drought tolerant, that means that most likely, the converse is also true, and it will be extremely in-tolerant of you drowning it with too much water.

5. Be very leery of plants you see advertised in the Sunday advertisement section of your newspaper, and in the myriad of catalogs that will descend upon you as soon as you are identified as a prospective sucker, I mean gardener. If something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007



Many of you cringe at the thought of entertaining because you think you have to spend days trying to pull off one of those picture-perfect affairs that you only see in magazines, and end up in such a frenzy that you can't enjoy yourself at all. Well, I've spent years perfecting the art of throwing parties that just look like I spent hours in the kitchen, when actually, I probably took a nap or went to a movie that afternoon, and I'm going to share some of my secrets with you.

The most important thing to remember is that, once again, our goal here is pleasure, not perfection - for both you and your guests. Sometimes I think women are afraid that people won't like them anymore if they do something that's not perfect, but actually, the opposite is true. If you get invited to someone's home, and they have a perfect house, perfect garden, perfect husband and kids, perfect food, etc., does it make you like them more? Heck no! It's as irritating as all get out, because it makes you feel inadequate by comparison. Women who go without sleep all week, just to pull off the perfect party, are not fun, they are martyrs. They make you feel guilty for having put them to so much trouble. So, next time you feel yourself getting all stressed out and uptight before a party, do what I always do. Just start chanting my favorite mantra under your breath - "No one ever invites Martha Stewart to their house. No one ever invites Martha Stewart to their house...". Am I right, or what? If you always gave perfect parties, do you think people would be chompin' at the bit to have you over to their place? No way! So, the first thing you need to do, is come up with some ideas for low work/high fun parties.


One of my all-time favorites for fall is a pot luck Mexican dinner. The first time you get some nice cool, crisp weather, you pull out your chili pepper patio lights, fire up the chimenea, then call and ask a few fun friends to come over. All you have to do is provide the Mexican beer, margaritas or Mexican soft drinks and some queso, or maybe grill some fajitas if you are feeling industrious. Just ask each person to bring some kind of Mexican dish, and there you have it. Guaranteed fun, and nothing could be easier. Every time I have done this, I have had people come up to me afterwards and say that it was one of the most fun parties they had been to in ages, and it was so good of me to go to all that trouble. It is sometimes difficult to keep a straight face while receiving praise for something that required so little effort on my part, however, that is precisely why they had such a great time - their hosts were just as relaxed and having just as much fun as they were! If you don't want Mexican, this idea would work just as well with an Italian or Greek theme - anything where the dishes can be made in advance and transported easily. Just adjust your beverages and decor accordingly.


Whenever my sister Carolyn hosts a spring gathering, she often uses a French country picnic theme. She serves cold sliced meats, cheeses and pates with little buns and croissants, and assorted mustards, then tops it all off with fresh strawberries and yummy pastries. I like to celebrate my garden coming back to life by inviting all of my girlfriends over for a ladies' garden party. Each person brings a salad and wears their favorite hat, and I mix up a big batch of refreshing almond iced tea, and serve a lovely warm, crusty bread and a simple dessert to go with the salads. Both parties allow the hostess to finish her preparations in advance so that she will be free to enjoy her guests. Either way, spring is the perfect time for dining al fresco. Where we live, if you wait until summer, it's just too dang hot, and the mosquitoes will eat you alive. I'm not too crazy about sitting on the ground with the ants, or trying to balance a limp paper plate on one's lap. Rather, I lean more towards a farm table on the porch beneath a slowly turning fan, or bistro tables out on a flagstone terrace under a vine-covered pergola. Ah, paradise!


Each member of my family has a favorite holiday. Personally, I'm a Christmas fanatic, whereas my daughter goes nuts over Halloween. When my son was 16, and about to get his driver's license, he pulled me aside and made me promise that there would still be eggs hidden in the yard on Easter morning. Now my husband, he likes Independence Day. I don't know why, he just does (probably that male thing about playing with fire and explosives). He's always a little disappointed if I let it slip by without doing much to celebrate, so one year when the kids were in high school and junior high, I decided to make him a happy man. I let each kid invite a few friends and their families over for a backyard barbecue. To show his appreciation, my husband the troublemaker went out and bought a dozen water pistols, and stealthily passed them out to all of the kids.

We grilled burgers and iced down sodas in big galvanized tubs on the patio, and each family brought a side dish. To top it all off, we got out the freezer and made a batch of Dad's famous homemade pineapple ice cream. I was totally blown away as I passed it out, when most of the kids said things like "You made this? Cool! I've never had homemade before." Now people, this is just plain sad! You can pick up a freezer at the local discount store or at a garage sale for practically nothing, it stores nicely on a shelf in your garage or at the back of your laundry bin, and I'm about to give you a great recipe that involves nothing more complicated than opening a can, so there's no excuse. It's your moral duty as an American citizen to fix your kids some homemade ice cream each summer. After all, you're not just making ice cream, you're making memories!

Dad's Homemade Pineapple Ice Cream:

2 cups sour cream, 2 (15 oz.) cans sweetened condensed milk,
4 cups milk, and 2 -1/2 cups crushed pineapple, drained

Combine sour cream, sweetened condensed milk and milk in a large bowl. Pour into a 4-quart ice cream freezer and freeze until partially frozen, according to manufacturer's instructions. Add drained, crushed pineapple and freeze until firm. Remove the dasher and pack down to ripen, according to instructions.


Last, but not least, let's talk about family feasts. While we all dream of them being glorious occasions such as the feast described in Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes, more often than not, they are probably more like one of the fiascoes described in some of the more comical holiday movies. Although I long to follow the manifesto of the Slow Food Movement, which encourages everyone to counteract our national obsession with speed by slowing down to enjoy fresh local materials and focus on careful preparation and warm hospitality, I am not a great cook. My brother-in-law's family, on the other hand, contains several fabulous cooks, as well as a vegetarian, and a "Where's the Beef?" kind of guy. As much as I love them all, I used to dread having them to my house for the holidays. Their favorite occupation is to critique everything they eat. Now, I was raised in a house where you were taught that no matter how bad the food is, you have to say something nice, otherwise the cook might leave the room in tears. It took me a while to realize that they weren't trying to be mean or rude, they just love to talk about food. In fact, they still give me grief about the first time I had them over, and they caught me using a recipe to make mashed potatoes. I didn't have the nerve to explain to them what an accomplishment that was, since up to that point, I'd only had mashed potatoes from a box! I don't know why it took me so long, but finally I realized that instead of trying to make dressing just like my mother-in-law's, or gravy just like my sister-in-law's, perhaps I should concentrate on offering them the wonderful foods that are unique to our area, things they can't get up north where they live. So now I have a great time searching out the local cheese-makers, the best sausages, and the wonderful fresh tamales and tortillas that we have available here. I'm following Slow Food's advice to serve fresh, local materials that have been lovingly prepared - just not all prepared by me!