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Excerpt for The Weekly Gardener - Book 8 - July to December 2015 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords







WEEK ONE

July 13th - The streets of Bucharest


Pedestrian streets

You have to understand the spirit of Bucharest to get the meaningful relationship its dwellers have with walking. Walking in Bucharest is not a means to get from A to B, it is a social activity, a treasure hunt, a way to reconnect with familiar surroundings.

You don't walk with a specific destination in mind, you walk to see if you can find the gem of a new store, to run into people you know, to enjoy nice weather.

From the Lipscani boutiques to the flower market and all the way to the University, past the church of Baratie whose austere all white bell tower marks some sort of a midpoint on the path.

From the University corner bookstore to the coffee house and pastry shop, past the National Theater towards the Roman Plaza and then suddenly turning on little side streets to get to the Atheneum.

Across the street from the Royal Palace, past by the wavy concrete shell of the Palace Hall, one quick stop at the bookstore to browse the selection, and then through a passageway between two solid slabs of apartments to the back gate of the park Cismigiu, to watch the swans bathe in the fountain at the center of the lake.

Why? Absolutely no reason, why does one need a reason to walk around one's city, just sight seeing, just sight seeing. At the end of the day, depending on how extensive that day's stroll happened to be, your feet are killing you and you drop, exhausted, on a chair, swearing never to do this tour de force again, only to forget and start on your path with renewed curiosity the next morning, to see what things you might have missed the day before.


At the bookstore

This recently open bookstore in Old Town has an interesting history: the building, constructed in the nineteenth century, was acquired by the Chrissoveloni bankers family in 1903 and remained under their ownership until the early fifties, when it was confiscated by the communist regime and turned into a department store.

After the Revolution in 1989 the heirs of the initial owners revendicated the structure, which was in dire shape but nevertheless on the registry of architectural monuments, and restored it.

The building now houses one of the bookstores in the Carturesti chain. The design team took great care to ensure that the building's renovation emphasizes the period style and the graceful details of the original structure.

Dressed in white, so not a single detail will be missed, the new bookstore's space is airy, peaceful and inviting, a journey and a destination wrapped into one.

Don't come in with a rushed heart, linger, explore, spend a little time in its many nooks and crannies, discover it's hidden passageways, feel its spirit. And if your eyes get tired from all the reading, you can always take a little break and look up at the sky.


Old town

I found a friend as we were taking a nostalgic stroll down the streets of Old Town. This label is somewhat of a misnomer, because the Old Bucharest is not that old.

A massive restoration project was launched a decade ago to return as many of the historical buildings and street views as possible to their original condition. The project, still in progress in some areas, was a great success and renewed the interest of tourists and locals alike for the charming style and casual sophistication that earned Bucharest the nickname Little Paris in the interbellic era.


Downtown

You don't often get a sparsely populated picture of downtown. Come late afternoon its pedestrian streets start teaming with people, most of whom are trying to decide between the plethora of culinary choices whose aromas entice from every corner.

Many of the restaurants have their tables out in the street, for the enjoyment of the patrons and the temptation of the passers bay. You'll have to give in to one of them eventually, you know you can't help it, you're only human.


WEEK TWO

July 20th - Building on water


Piazza San Marco

Italian cities are sophisticated in a way that is hard to put in words. Their old buildings embrace modern touches naturally, as if they were built for them. Polished marble, expensive perfume, stylish furnishings and twelfth century stone structures still in use, complete with Wi-Fi hot spots. Piazza San Marco makes this contrasting fusion very evident.

We sat on the steps around the plaza, munching quietly on our sandwiches and staring wide eyed at the crowds in the vast square, at its imposing architecture, at the street performers in Carnival costumes and at the little kids who ran around to startle the sea of pigeons.

A city of stone built on water, that's what Venice is, but nobody pays attention to this small detail because it's already built, and it's been there for a long time, and an Italy without Venice would feel strange.

You won't have time to occupy yourself with these metaphysical musings anyway. It takes a lot of mental energy to work your way around the crowds and make sure you don't miss the life saving arrows that keep you on the desired itinerary.

Between the smell of fresh baked pizza, the refined scents wafting through the doors of the upscale shops, the bright colors, the blinding sunshine and the complete lack of directional awareness the little gray cells tend to get a bit confused.


Venetian streets

Venice surprised me, it wasn't at all what I expected. Before I saw it, I imagined it to be a network of man made fjords, barely accessible and only by gondola.

The real charm of Venice is its maze of pedestrian alleys and tunnels. The streets are narrow, sometimes barely allowing one person to pass at a time, and bend unexpectedly, taking away all your sense of direction and moving you around in circles, back to the place where you started, with no idea how you got there.

Every now and then the maze opens up into a larger space, usually given away by the fact that the cool shadow of the narrow canyons is dispersed by blinding sunlight, and then you know you must have reached a plaza, or the docks along a large canal.

While in the midst of a square plaza I looked for another way out and I wouldn't have seen it if it weren't for the arrow pointing right to it: "to the vaporetto". A secretive tunnel, barely tall enough for a short person to walk through, reached across and around what looked like a private courtyard and then turned abruptly to the left to get us back out in the blinding light reflected off the waters of the canal.

You lose all reference of cardinal points after a while, there is no looking up to assess the position of the sun, you are either in blazing light or full shade and all the narrow streets look more or less the same.

If it weren't for the signs pointing us in the right direction we would never have found our way back to Piazza San Marco, but the arrows were everywhere, so we meandered back up to and over the Rialto bridge, vaguely recognizing the places we had seen before, and following the blessed red arrows like Hansel and Gretel did their breadcrumb trail.


The Dodge's palace

A trademark of Venice, the iconic facade of the Dodge's Palace is only equaled in popularity by the adjacent masterpiece, Piazza San Marco.

It isn't easy to get an imposing facade on a building in Venice, unless it happens to belong to one of the few large plazas, or lay along the Grand Canal: the streets and water ways are too narrow to give it enough perspective.

The pampered Dodge's Palace flaunts its privileged position, like a celebrity posing for flashing cameras.


Towards the Grand Canal

The streets of Venice are a challenging puzzle, it would be very easy to get lost in their maze if it weren't for the arrows that grace the walls at every intersection, pointing you in the right direction.

Even more challenging than getting a grasp on direction is figuring out the elevation differential. This picture points towards the base of a monumental stair leading to the bridge over the Grand Canal. I wish I paid attention to what is responsible for this dramatic change in elevation, maybe the bridge is sloping, but then again, what do I know?


WEEK THREE

July 27th - A stroll on the meadow of miracles


Leaning wonder

I couldn't summon the guts to climb the two hundred and ninety four steps to the top of the tower. I know it's leaning angle was forever stabilized at 3.99 degrees through an impressive feat of structural engineering, but the lizard brain would have its own rules, and logic doesn't compute. I just didn't want to be the last straw...

If it seems to you that the tower is bent, your eyes are not deceiving you: the builders, in an effort to compensate for the tilt, built the upper floors taller on one side than the other.

In a strange twist of fate, the start of war after the completion of the third level saved the tower from toppling over by allowing the unstable subsoil on the leaning side to settle and reach a better bearing capacity.

As graceful and lacy as it looks, the Tower of Pisa is extremely heavy. Its all stone construction is as heavy as the Brooklyn bridge.

During the twentieth and twenty first centuries the campanile underwent several stabilization efforts, involving lead counterbalances and removal of subsoil from the high side. After the last one, during 2008, the tower stopped moving for the first time in history and is now considered stable for at least another couple of centuries.

Stone truly is timeless. The construction of this architectural jewel started a little after the twelfth century began, which would make it almost a thousand years old. It doesn't look a day over a hundred.


Camposanto

Camposanto is beautiful and tranquil, imbued with a serenity you don't find in many places in this world. You almost wish you could stay there, if only it weren't a cemetery. Its name, which means 'Holy Land', is quite literal: the Crusaders brought a shipload of sacred soil from Golgotha, and upon that soil the place was built.

It is cool in the cloister, a welcome respite from the unforgiving summer heat, the best place for introspection. Some of the memorial stones are impersonal and subdued, some elaborately carved to show the likeness and interests of the deceased, but all of them are embellished with a few Latin words carved in stone, brief messages sent through time.

I spent a few moments trying to read the dates on the stones, whose years were written in Roman numerals, baffled that the older looking tombs were new and the new, old.

The collection of tombstones constitutes the pavement of the graceful edifice, and there is no way to walk around it other than stepping on them.

I didn't want to find out if there is anybody still resting under those stones, because the thought of walking on graves gives me pause, and yet, in a strange way, I don't remember feeling such a deep peace anywhere else.

I can't think of Camposanto as a cemetery, but rather as a repository of memories, lovingly carved on sarcophagi and headstones in remembrance of many people of all ages and walks of life, a timeline of humanity spanning from Antiquity to now.


Baptistery detail

With the famous leaning tower usually stealing the show one tends to overlook the fact that the other buildings on the Field of Miracles are equally beautiful. Saint John's Baptistery is covered in intricate embroidery, an image one usually expects to see in openwork lace, not stone.

The exuberant exterior contrasts with its austere interior, a somber Romanesque, stripped bare of detail.


The ceiling of Santa Maria Assunta

I saw the Dome of Pisa first, before Santa Maria Maggiore and a host of other monumental basilicas with sumptuous ceilings, and I didn't know anything about it beforehand, so I was not prepared for it.

When I lifted my eyes and saw its gilt coffered ceiling gleam in the light filtered through the stained glass windows, it made me believe I was no longer in this world.


WEEK FOUR

August 3rd - The eternal city


Basilica San Pietro

We got lost in the sea of people who were wandering around Saint Peter's Square, people patiently waiting in the colonnades to enter the basilica or the Sistine Chapel, people strolling wide eyed across the plaza, so many people, nuns, monks, priests, people who took pictures, people who came to see and people who came to pray, some for very specific afflictions.

Under its sumptuous vaults and gilt coffered ceiling lays the final resting place of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Saint Peter's Square is always filled with people. Its huge space, cradled between the half circles of the colonnades like a baby in its mother's arms, doesn't feel intimidating, because no matter where you are in it, everything feels close, welcoming, keen, warm.

It took us a while to make our way through the groups of sight seers in the center of the plaza, Christians and non-Christians, religious and lay. As we walked out of the cool shadow of the colonnade, the magnesium sun swaddled us in brilliance, so strong we had to squint our eyes.

I never imagined my family and I would walk the cobblestones of the plaza together, the stones that bore the footsteps of so many hopeful, saintly or simply curious travelers, but there we were, leaving a few wishes and prayers of our own, with humble spirits.

Even in Rome, there is a limit to the distance one can reasonably travel on foot, so we didn't walk to the Vatican.

As I watched its imposing silhouette projected on the sky across the Tiber river, a stone's throw from the Umberto I bridge, while trying to avoid the reproachful eyes of my thirsty, hot and tired family after two hours of walking from the Campidoglio to the Quirinal and all the way to Piazza Navona, it seemed so close, so close...


Rome at sunset

From Piazza del Popolo a set of monumental stairs followed by small alleys winds up the Pincian Hill to Napoleon's Plaza and the most amazing view one can get in this life.

We arrived close to dusk, just in time to see the sun set behind Saint Peter's Basilica, crowning it in glory. The majestic dome of Santa Maria Maggiore, the Campidoglio, the Imperial Fora, the bewildering twin churches Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli that guard the entrance to the Piazza del Popolo, every roof top engulfed in greenery, every steeple, even the far away hills of the Eternal City were drenched in a rosy-golden light.

Strolling on the alley of the Belvedere, which marks the edge of the gardens Borghese, we tried to take in as much as we could of the beautiful image, almost forgetting the baking heat that didn't relent, even as the evening advanced.

I can't find other words to say about Rome except that it overwhelms. You know you'll be impressed when you get there but it exceeds any expectation one might have. Every monument and every public space makes you feel both proud to belong to the human race and humbled for having achieved so little in your own life by comparison.

And its streets smell of perfume. How a city of millions, at this population density, in a climate where temperatures rarely drop below 90 deg F during summer manages to smell of perfume, I'll relinquish to the realm of miracles.

Under the hot Mediterranean sun Rome unravels its layers, one at a time, to reveal older, and older slices of time, it almost feels there is no end to this unraveling, as if she had no beginning, as if she had been there before time itself, eternal indeed.


The Pantheon

If the fact that this very well preserved edifice, built around the same time with the birth of Christ, has been in continuous use since the seventh century doesn't impress you, its masterful use of structural engineering certainly will.

Spanning one hundred and forty two feet, the Pantheon is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. That little oculus you see at its apex is twenty seven feet in diameter.

All the structural hard work required to support its majesty is hidden behind the flawless finishes, the thinning concrete shell, the gradually lighter aggregates used to build it, the supportive brick arches buried in its massive walls.


Piazza Navona

When you are in Piazza Navona at noon, and the sun casts no shadows, the fountain statuary, the gleaming water, the bleached soapstone of the building facades and the light colored pavement amplify its intensity to almost blinding levels.

You have to squint, even with sunglasses, because trying to look at white marble at this time of day feels like staring directly into the sun.

Artists gather to paint in this light while animated crowds of tourists swarm around them like bees, occasionally seeking shelter from the unforgiving radiance at one of the umbrella tables from the surrounding restaurants.


WEEK FIVE

August 10th - Fresh off the vine


More beans

I kind of planted beans for their flowers, but they proved to be quite productive. The bright purple pods petered out and left room for the "Scarlet Emperor" variety, whose flowers are bright red and pods green. I really don't like green beans, so this year I decided to allow the pods to dry.

They look vibrant and refreshingly plump, especially now, in the middle of August, when rain is making us wait. I don't know if they kept pests at bay, which is the main reason why they earned a spot in the classic potager, but they sure are pretty.

The vines clambered the balcony and attached themselves eagerly to every potted plant in their way, but their flowers are this pretty and I find it difficult to treat them harshly. I just pulled the twisted vines back from the unfortunate tuberoses and wrapped them around the railing.

As I plucked, tied up and cleaned the scary vegetable bed, mumbling under my breath the entire time, mostly about the unfairness of life and the unacceptable growth habits of the plant world, I noticed that the eggplants I thought long gone had braved their way through the tomato haze and emerged victorious from underneath the squash and marigold thicket.

They are starting to bloom, again, two months late, but judging by the length of this year's growing season (we're supposed to experience summer like temperatures way into late October), I may see fruit yet. The plants are not very big, but they look healthy, despite the heat stress.

The eggplants may or may not produce, but the beans seem happy to oblige. What does one do with so many pods?


Green fruit

You will not believe the level of chaos nature can impose on a reasonably well tended garden in three weeks. It took the plants that long to look scary and me one week to salvage the back yard from the wilderness. Five foot tall weeds, cracked nutshells, broken branches, vines grown out of control, covering pathways, grabbing onto everything in sight and smothering their defenseless neighbors. And this is the extent of my whining. Seriously, it was offensive.

Now that the vines are tied back to their supports, I noticed that the tomatoes didn't particularly like my pruning efforts. Lessons learned. They put all their efforts into growing back their lush foliage, and only after that they decided to bloom again. I did, however, get one of the promised giant fruits they are supposed to develop in the absence of leaves, as you can see in this picture. By the time it's ready for harvest, this monster tomato will probably weigh close to a pound.

The rest of the tomato plants are following their regular August pattern of mayhem and total world domination, and are getting close to the point where they topple their supports and grow completely out of control. They are fruitful, as much as I can see, considering the fruit is still green and it's kind of hard to tell it apart from the sea of unfurling foliage. It's a jungle out there, again.

I picked a few tomatoes upon returning, but the bulk of the Supersweet 100 is just now getting ready to ripen, because the pruning set them back a month. Maybe my garden thrives on chaos, who knows? It sure seems to enjoy creating it, given any chance.

The plentiful rain that blessed the cucumbers with a glut of fruit (I couldn't believe my eyes!) didn't do the tomatoes much justice. The latter thrive on bright sunshine and not getting their leaves wet. Every year brings a different harvest, it is part of what makes gardening exciting.

Cucumbers, squashes, peppers, beans? Splendid. Tomatoes? Meh...


The peppers are ripe

I don't usually have the patience to leave these on the plant until they turn red, but since I've been gone for three weeks, nature took care if it. And no, they are not hot peppers, they are sweet banana peppers.

Lessons learned, again, if you plant vegetables in containers, you have to water them twice a day and feed them to bursting if you want them to produce. They were very prolific bloomers and set fruit immediately, but their fruit stayed small. As soon as I came back and started watering them again, they picked up where they left off.


Awesome squashes

We were blessed with plentiful and well timed rain showers during June and the first half of July, and the vegetables really showed it: I already harvested respectable quantities of cucumbers and squashes.

The squash in the picture is the last of the old batch, it seems that the heat and drought had signaled to the veggies to take a breather. Of course, I didn't apply myself as well as I should have, but even with regular waterings the cucumbers are stubbornly barren in the absence of precipitation. Keeping my fingers crossed for rain tonight, it seems like we're finally going to get some.


WEEK SIX

August 17th - The good herb


The culinary herb

I know, when you think cooking herb, lemon verbena is not the first plant that comes to mind. A lot of people, especially here, up north, where it is not winter hardy, may not be familiar with this wonderful plant, so I'll do the honors.

It has the fragrance and taste of lemon zest, with just a hint of green herb, and it can be used in any recipe that asks for lemon flavor, from meat stews and salads to fish dishes, candy or sophisticated desserts.

It makes a very pleasant tea all by itself, just steeped in water with nothing else added in. It is lemony, refreshing and a little spicy, and it is supposed to settle an upset stomach, although I didn't have the opportunity to verify that.

The plant is not a showy one, but you'll recognize it immediately because it releases a strong lemon scent the second you brush against it, the scent that is its trademark and made it a staple of perfumers' shops.

It is not often that a plant can span the whole range between soap and haute cuisine, but lemon verbena is one of them.

Much like lemon balm, it loses some of its potency when dried, so use fresh whenever possible. The fresh leaves' scent is very strong, a little goes a long way, the dry powder is more subtle.

It likes warmth and sunshine and it will grow very big in zones nine and above, where it can be planted outdoors, but its growth is compact, manageable and attractive.


The wound herb

A resilient weed, native to the northern hemisphere, yarrow grows wild in open fields and along the sides of the roads, and had only recently gained the privilege to be cultivated in flower gardens.

Don't judge this humble herb to be ordinary, Achillea millefolium is a well documented medicinal plant, astringent, anti inflammatory and tonic, but above all it has a special gift: it is a hemostatic agent.

Yarrow is such a powerful anticoagulant that it stops the bleeding from small cuts and scrapes almost instantly, a quality which made it the go to herb for dressing wounds back in the day, in almost every culture. This explains some of yarrow's other names too, like sanguinary or soldier's woundwort. Legend has it that Achilles himself had rendered his skin impenetrable by covering it with yarrow tincture, hence the name of the genus.

Its chemical composition shares elements with those of willow bark and chamomile, which is why the plant exhibits similar properties. It is astringent and soothes irritation, useful qualities in skin care, particularly for the oily or acne prone types. As with all home remedies, avoid during pregnancy.

Yarrow oil helps reduce scarring. It contains essential antioxidants, stimulates the growth of new cells and promotes the health of existing ones, and this makes it a fountain of youth of sorts, definitely worthy of a place in both your medicinal garden and your natural beauty arsenal.


The soothing herb

No plant soothes like lavender. This magical herb calms everything, from irritated skin to blood pressure and frayed nerves.

Its fragrance fosters relaxation and induces restful sleep, it even helps dull the perception of pain. This, in addition to the clean scent that gave lavender its name, makes it an excellent plant to use in linen closets, chests and drawers.

The essential oil is wonderful, but nothing beats the subtle scent of fresh lavender buds. If still located in a lavender field basking in the sunshine, even better.


The antiseptic herb

Thyme and bee balms are the richest sources of thymol, a powerful naturally derived antiseptic, apparently as effective as bleach. You would find that hard to believe unless you happened to smell thymol: its scent is more pungent than the latter's.

If you love thyme fragrance, the essential oil smells nothing like the pleasantly spicy plant, it is more reminiscent of turpentine and dominates almost any fragrance it is mixed with. The decoct is less offensive, but also less powerful. You may not enjoy the potent smell, but thyme extract has one thing going for it: it sure does disinfect.


WEEK SEVEN

August 24th - Blessed rain


Summer night rain

The rain started right before midnight, with a soft, somewhat tentative thunder announcing it from afar, almost as if it was asking itself whether or not it had the right time.

I listened to it for a while, reliving a memory. The sounds, the scents of rain, removed from sight, speak to the soul in the same way your favorite old sweater comforts you, without you even being aware of it, that sweater you can grab from the closet without looking.

I lingered for a moment before I let the footfalls of the rain sink into my consciousness, only half recognizing my old friend, the repository of memories.

Favorite sounds from childhood rapped their little fingers on the roof, softly and evenly, for hours, until all the noises subsided and the world eased into a peaceful slumber.

I don't know when the rain stopped, but it must have been quite close to dawn, because the hosta flowers were still heavy with raindrops in the morning.

The summer garden sprung back to life immediately, its foliage more vibrant after being washed clean and getting its water reserves replenished.


My beloved

I plant morning glory every year. Always in the same spot, always the same variety - Heavenly Blue. I forget about it after I plant it, it is slow to start in spring and its foliage gets lost in the jumble when the mid-summer growth takes over the flower beds.

Come August, its growth accelerates enthusiastically, especially if summer rains have been plentiful, and it swallows up its supports, clambering eagerly to the highest point it can find, and only there it starts to bloom.

In my case the highest point is a pine bough that hangs just above the trellis, within reach of the springy vines. The image of this pine covered in huge blue flowers is so surreal that I wouldn't dream of missing it by not planting my beloved in this spot, although this year I also started it in the back yard.

Because of the vine's name people think that morning glory flowers only open during the first hours of the day, which isn't true. When the sky is overcast they stay open all day long, the plant just doesn't like the crude sun rays burning its delicate corollas.

Morning glory is not like other garden favorites that take their time to develop their buds into blossoms and build your anticipation over days, sometimes weeks. You just walk in your garden one bright morning to find its corner covered by a veil of huge flowers, all open at the same time to dazzle you in sparkling jewel hues.

This summer it happened today. It started blooming and will continue to do so, with abandon, until the first frost. The plant is very sensitive to cold; when you sow the seeds in spring make sure they don't sprout until after the date of the last frost in your area, because the plant will not recover from being exposed to it.


Peeking through

You have to wonder at the beauty of nature, even in its ultimate simplicity. I don't even know what plant this is, that surrounds the landscaping roses with lacy veils of white streamers, but the image is almost bridal.

The little rose blossoms peek through it, shyly, invigorated by the rain and the cooler temperatures and filling their surroundings with citrus and clove fragrance. The two plants thrive as one in their strange symbiosis, a precious garden jewel that sparkles under raindrops in the morning sunshine.


Stomping hostas

I am still hyperventilating over this gardening technique. It will increase the size of established hosta clumps, but it makes every fiber in my green thumb heart writhe in agony! It is called stomping, and I will share it with you, although I vow to never do it, come want or punishment.

As soon as the young hosta shoots emerge from the ground in spring, after a long, dreary, godforsaken winter, you are supposed to stomp them into the dirt and trample them into oblivion, thus forcing the mother plant to bring more latent shoots out of dormancy. No!


WEEK EIGHT

August 31st - September color


Autumn yellow

I always thought of goldenrod as a dyer's plant and was surprised to learn that it has medicinal properties.

Its Latin name, Solidago, literally means "to make whole", and puts goldenrod squarely in the wound healing category. It has other medicinal properties, too, mostly related to improving the kidney and circulatory functions.

Apparently it is edible, but I wouldn't know about that and will refrain from testing this hypothesis on my long suffering stomach.

It is a good thing that the plant has so many uses, because it is relentless and once you have it in your garden it will spread with a vengeance. Its roots are grasping and stubborn, and it will continue to return after you pluck it, over and over, rising like the Phoenix from its own ashes.

I finally abandoned the fight and left it to its own devices in a couple of places where it provides a wonderful pop of color for the autumn months, just when the garden needs a little pick me up.

The seed heads are not very attractive; it sometimes gets confused with ragweed because of its appearance, but goldenrod does not cause hay fever. Some people can develop skin reactions from touching the plant, so you're better off dead-heading it promptly, trust me, the last thing you need is more goldenrod brush!


Bee trivia

There must be a hive somewhere in the neighborhood, because bees visit my garden very often, to gather nectar from their favorite flowers. Sedums produce an abundance of it, and their small flowers make an insect's work a little easier.

Did you know that a worker bee lives just forty days over the summer and during all this time of collecting nectar it only manages to gather a twelfth of a teaspoon's worth of honey? I feel guilty now, just thinking of all the times honey dripped off the bread.

Worker bees are exclusively female and sterile, and they are responsible for all the work in the hive, from cleaning to building repairs, caring for the young and of course, gathering nectar and pollen. There is no biological difference between a worker bee and a queen bee. When the hive needs a new queen it starts feeding one of the female larvae only royal jelly. This bee ambrosia makes it grow one and a half times bigger, extends her lifespan to sixty times that of a regular bee and kick starts her fertility cycle.

When bees are cared for by bee keepers, the queen is purposefully bred and introduced to the hive, which often, but not always, accepts her without a challenge.

Since queen bees need to be replaced regularly, the beekeeping industry uses a color code, to keep track of the year the queen had been introduced to the hive. It is common practice for queen bees to be marked with a small dot of that year's color on their throat or thorax, usually by the breeder.

The queen bee's productive lifespan is two to three years. This seems dire if you don't compare it with the average life of a worker bee.

Don't avoid these beneficial insects. They rarely sting unless threatened and will allow you to get very close if you don't bother them, which explains how I took this picture.


Herbal skin care

There are a few plants that shouldn't be missing from any herbal beauty arsenal: the emollients, astringents, hydrating, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and cell regeneratives.

Calendula is one, a wonderful skin mender, which is why it features in so many winter hand creams and wound salves, but there are many others. Try them in combination for synergistic effects. Here are a few examples: rose - hydrating, great for mature skin, lavender - antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, hibiscus - emollient,chamomile - calming, astringent, yarrow - cell regenerative, rosemary - stimulates blood circulation, fights blemishes.


Late summer

For those who want fast and spectacular results in the garden,tick seed is your plant. I started mine from seed at the end of last summer and had a flowerbed full by mid-spring.

There were so many of them that I had to pull and move a few in other areas of the garden, but they didn't make it, I assume the plant doesn't like its roots disturbed.

The remaining ones, though, grew and thrived. They tend to be a little on the assertive side, like their cousins the daisies and the coneflowers. Don't plant them near delicate plants and wish for the best, they'll eat them alive.


WEEK NINE

September 7th - Lavender and blue


Perennial ground covers

I can't figure out the precise point when a fast spreading plant becomes a ground cover. Some, like ivyperiwinkle and the beautiful blue flowering plumbago in the picture, are quite obvious, others, like lily of the valley and sweet violets, take you by surprise, starting with a shy little clump in spring and filling the garden with their prolific progeny in one season.

I guess if we define as perennial ground cover any plant that fills up all the space it occupies, we can expand the list to include daylilies, beebalms, tickseed, irises, raspberry thickets and strawberry patches.

I have become quite appreciative of ground covers' qualities, especially for shady borders or dry, sun baked areas that are difficult to keep presentable.

Once these unpretentious plants acclimate to an area, they will be happy to fill it, not allowing room for weeds and covering unsightly bare patches with healthy foliage. Many of them bloom to bring fragrance to the garden and fill the spaces around larger perennials, where their compact foliage shade the roots of the latter, spans the gaps between their flushes of bloom and allows them to hold on to their water longer.

It is true that some ground covers need to be contained, otherwise they take over as large an area as they have access to, but in many circumstances, their eager spreading habit is a feature, not a drawback.

For dry shade in particular, where just the fact that anything will thrive is a blessing, pachysandraivyvinca, and sweet woodruff make for very useful plants.

I always look forward to the beginning of fall, when this blue flowered princess takes first stage in the garden. Its blossoms always make me smile, it's impossible not to love it.


Catmint

I got catmint for its pleasant scent, a blend of peppermint and pennyroyal, and its pale lavender flowers, a very refreshing sight on hot summer afternoons. It is one of the coveted perennials that bloom at the end of summer and one that requires very little in terms of care.

This mint cousin blends beautifully with other perennials and will grow quite large over time, if not bothered, without becoming unruly or invasive. It doesn't mind part shade, but performs best in full sun exposure, where it tolerates dry conditions very well; you'll often see it featured in rock gardens and xeriscapes for this reason.

Mine stands alone, a little aloof, on the edge between the flower and the herb border. I couldn't make up my mind which one it belongs to.

It isn't exactly a medicinal herb. Catmint is often confused with catnip and their names are sometimes used interchangeably, but the two are completely different plants, albeit belonging to the same Nepeta genus. While the less attractive catnip is a well documented medicinal herb, used to keep colds at bay, and yes, it is the same catnip kitty enjoys, catmint is mostly an ornamental plant.

Felines, both large and small, are attracted to both of them and will chew their clumps into oblivion if they catch a whiff of their scent. Folk tales say that they will leave alone the plants grown from seed and only munch on the ones propagated by cuttings. It appears the bruising of the leaves and stems releases the fragrance felines are so fond of.

Catmints are great plants for attracting bees to your garden; the beneficial insects are very fond of them and you'll often find them swarming around their little flowers.


Late bloomers

I just wanted to mention that my eggplants finally developed enough to start blooming. It is late, of course, but no matter, it looks like warm weather is going to stay with us a while longer.

Most eggplant varieties need around a hundred days from seed to harvest, mine are approaching a hundred and fifty. They've got at least another month, but talk about procrastinating! Good thing eggplants don't need time to turn edible, they start out fully ripe and only need more time to grow in size.


The shade garden

Who says a shade garden can't be blessed with flowers? Thehostas had another great year, just going through the second tier of bloom.

Between them, heucherassweet violetsbugle weedbleeding heartslily of the valleyhelleborestoad liliessedum and balloon flowersthere should be sufficient bloom from spring to fall to always have flowers in the shade garden. To sweeten the pot, they're all perennial and very low maintenance.


WEEK TEN

September 14th - Purple shades


Purple pods

If I knew how much I would enjoy purple beans, I would only have planted those to begin with. Besides being an attractive feature in the garden, they taste better and are not stringy at all, which is a blessing.

Of course the purple color turns green in the pot, but that's beside the point.

Why does that happen? There is a complicated explanation, involving the breaking down of anthocyanins at high temperatures, combined with the change in the acidity of the cellular sap due to water dilution and the stripping away of the purple pigment, which leaves behind only the color of the chlorophyll, previously masked by the former, but why spoil the magic? You put raw purple beans in the pot and cooked green beans come out, how cool is that!

The strange thing is that red cabbage also has anthocyanins in it, but when you boil red cabbage, it doesn't turn green, it turns an even darker shade of purple. This is of course the subject of another lesson in chemistry and cooking that I have yet to learn.

The anthocyanin pigment is very sensitive to pH, it turns from bright red to lime green between acidic and alkaline solutions respectively, and stays purple in neutral media.

Some people noticed that if you fry or roast the beans, they stay purple, so it appears to be the hot water that does the trick, not the heat alone.

The weather cooled and, as always, the pod production machine picked up the pace and regaled me with a fresh batch of produce. I still have to figure out a way to preserve them that doesn't involve boiling or blanching.


Opal basil

Speaking of purple plant pigments, the ones in opal basil are responsible for turning aromatic vinegars a beautiful shade of rose, I always look forward to preparing them during the summer.

For all of us who enjoy this lovely plant it will come as a shock that the Greeks believed the herb to be driving men to madness. It is associated with the basilisk and folk tales say one needs to curse and rant when planting it in order for it to grow, because it embodies hatred and anger and it's born of scorpion's poison.

I can attest from personal experience that is not true, I have planted it many times and did not use inappropriate language to spur its development. Nor did I notice any increase in unusual behavior, but then again...

The Italians on the other hand consider it the herb of love and purification. Can you imagine the confusion engendered by trying to use it in the wrong context? Anyway, back to cooking.

It is rich in antioxidants, which makes it a youth preserving herb, and it contains nutrients essential to maintaining a healthy heart, such as magnesium, vitamin K, iron, calcium and B vitamins.

I always have a pot of basil on the terrace, and even though I love the purple varieties best, the large leaved Italian is a lot more fragrant, a very nice quality during hot summer afternoons. The plant doesn't like dry conditions, so make sure to water it regularly, especially if planted in a container.


Mighty cleomes

Judging by the amount of seed these garden prodigies generate I won't need to worry about next year's annual flower selection. I am going to have an exclusive, cleome only garden, where said plant will multiply exponentially and eventually cover the world.

As I got closer to take this picture, one of the flower stalks swayed in the wind and sprinkled a fresh batch of ripe seeds all over the lawn.

They are slow to start and sneak up on you towards the end of the season, with sizable clumps covered in flowers. I really like them and wished I planted more this spring, I guess I got my wish.


September blossoms

The garden donned that tired look it usually arrives to by the end of September, not ready for the turning of the leaves yet, but anticipating the change in seasons. Sedums and marigolds are trying their best to brighten up the flower beds, out-competing the last tomatoes that had started to ripen.

It's all rust and pumpkin and lemon yellow. I don't like fall at all, not even with the foliage and the goldy-locks weather, so I'm going to start planning next spring's garden for morale. The back yard could use more flowers, especially of the late summer blooming.


WEEK ELEVEN

September 21st - Fall equinox


Autumn darlings

The summer is officially over, both in the garden and on the calendar, we just passed he point when the day becomes shorter than the night. The light shifted, a soft but impossible to miss change that always precedes the beginning of fall.

As usual at the end of September I'm excited to welcome the stars of the fall garden, the toad lilies. I can't get over how understated and sophisticated these flowers are, both at the same time, you have to get really close to capture the charm of their northern orchid countenance.

Don't be deceived by their fragile appearance, under the right circumstances they are hardy low maintenance bulbs, performing very reliably in cool temperate climates, although they do resent wet winters and will not come back the spring after that.

I think this time I finally matched the perfect Goldilocks conditions that will make them happy: not too sunny, not too shady, not too dry, not too boggy, not too soft, not too crowded, not too exposed. If you plant them in full shade they will not last very long and hold off on blooming, despite the fact that the plant is advertised for such growing conditions. I am not surprised, in fact most full shade plants prefer dappled shade and will not give their best if they don't get any sunshine at all.

The original Tricyrtis plant (that's the name if you don't feel right calling it toad lily) only comes in its characteristic purple polka dots, the feature that gave the plant its nickname, but as with many garden flowers, the horticulturists managed to overcome the natural coloring and create a pink and a blue variety, both of which I planted. The pink one bloomed, I don't see any trace of the blue one yet, sadly. It makes me wonder if it is one of those plants that react to the soil pH.


Mauve

If you were wondering what the color mauve looks like, exactly, this is it. We know that because this flower, mauve des bois, orFrench mallow, gave the color its name.

The flower has many other names, the oddest of which is cheeseweed, inspired by the tightly packed configuration of its seed heads that makes them look like miniature cheese wheels. All the parts of the plant are edible, and this is fortunate, considering how prolific mallow is in producing offspring. Its little cheeses can populate a flowerbed in one season, so if you have the patience, you're better off picking and serving them as a snack, they have a pleasant nutty taste. This is easier said than done, because they hold on to the mother plant with a mighty grip right until the point when they disintegrate and spread far and wide all over the ground underneath.

Some ethnic cuisines use mallow leaves extensively, either cooked or raw, in the same manner in which cabbage or grape leaves are used, even though mallow becomes mucilaginous, like okra, when exposed to heat, not the most palatable quality.

Mallow is unrelenting, I only planted it once and I'm still plucking it out of the lawn seven years later. It is pretty enough and has the distinct advantage of blooming at the end of summer, just when the other perennials are wrapping up for the season. This is why I don't mind its sprawling habit and look the other way when one of its eager sprouts asserts itself in the middle of the just cleared flower bed in spring.

The plants are biennials but if the warm season is long enough, they'll bloom at the end of it. This is what mine are doing, a good thing, because I didn't notice any of them overwintering.

Believe me, those little cheeses mean business, you can't get in front of their prolific propagation habit and more than enough seeds will escape your scrutiny to ensure progeny the following year. It is, after all, considered a weed.

In my garden the best performers are mallows, goldenrod and bee balms, all of which can be considered weeds, depending on the gardening sensibility, I just have to wonder what that says about me.


Healing herbs

The herb garden has a special personality, a quality without a name that reaches the soul. Maybe it is the fact that it's always fragrant, maybe it's the tactile connection you make with it while picking leaves and flowers for drying, or maybe it's the simple joy that comes from watching healing essences spring from bare dirt.

The lavender is thriving, in its third year now. It grew into a large clump and bloomed for the first time.


Fall blues

The intensity of the plumbago is counterpointed by the cerulean of the morning glory and the deep indigo of the sage. At the edge of the herb garden, borage sprints into another flush of bloom, encouraged by the cooler temperatures.

The sky is blue too, perfectly clear like it gets only in April and September. It almost feels like the summer is sorry to leave, I can't believe it is time for harvest already.


WEEK TWELVE

September 28th - Waiting for pumpkins


Enchanted autumn

The beginning of fall usually saddens me, but not this year, I don't know why, for some reason even the cold rain, the wispy fog and the chilly mornings feel soft, like an embrace. The garden doesn't look sad either, it doesn't don the scraggly, despair driven appearance that usually accompanies the end of summer, it rather looks mature, self reliant, a landscape that endures.

I've planted a lot of perennials in the past few years, most of which the garden itself provided, and because they emerged from if its soil, they didn't have to adjust to it, I can almost feel them thrive. They found a balance among themselves, establishing their spreads, their hierarchy, their symbiotic relationships, and look like they've been there together forever.

A few sedum clumps that I started from tiny voluneer seedlings grew gigantic and stand above the landscape, fully ripe, turning quickly from burnt sienna to dark chocolate.

It's almost time for pumpkins and colorful foliage, warm fuzzy sweaters and hot cups of cocoa in front of the fire, and the aroma of root vegetable broth wafting through the kitchen.

There is enchantment in the air at the beginning of the cold season and I relish this unassuming time when everything seems so quiet and still, but when miraculous transformations happen under the stark surface of the soil, the kind that bring forth life's abundance in spring.


Fluff in the wind

I honestly can't warm up to this plant; I appreciate its warm and golden chenille panaches at the beginning of fall but loathe its unbelievably depressing wet hay appearance in spring. It looks pretty for exactly three days, right before the velvety seed heads open, and then it turns into fluff in the wind and oddly sticks out of the snow, purportedly to provide winter interest in the garden for the next six months.

I had quite a few of these in the garden, but the more compact ones, which tend to be short lived, died down over the years and left only a couple of tall clumps to welcome the fall.

I don't get grasses, I'm more of a berry and flower person myself. They're ok, I guess, if you ignore the fact that, much like the cartoon platypus, they don't do much. Their bulky clumps occupy a lot of space, at the front of the border no less in my specific instance, a location better suited for something well behaved, with pretty fragrant blossoms.

Instead of those I got plantzilla here, seven foot tall, choking anything at its feet and making a horrid mess for me to clean up in spring. Fortunately the neighboring garden phlox can stand its ground, as it has for at least a couple of decades. The latter has both flowers and fragrance, and is, of course, purple.

But I don't want to be negative about the fluff in the wind, there is a season for everything under the sun, and now it's its time to make hay, quite literally.


Sage wise

If there is one thing that thrived in the herb garden, it's the sage. Little did I know when I planted the two tiny clumps that it would dominate the landscape a few short months later.

Sage is a wonderful herb, a mender of health, a bringer of luck, a bearer of wisdom, a plant you should definitely consider keeping around if you have a little patch of dirt to putter in. I wish I liked its taste, or its smell, but alas, it doesn't make it easy, and there is just so much of it! One thing I discovered, to my great relief: as pungent as it is when fresh, dried sage exudes a very subtle and soothing herbal scent to provide instant aromatherapy.


Drops of sunshine

Another free blooming annual that lasts way into the fall, braving the first frosts. Calendulas will usually provide enough seed for the next year despite your best of efforts to prune them, so you'll have them popping out in the garden for years to come.

Word to the wise, don't neglect deadheading this flower, if you let it go to seed it will consider its job finished and retire for the season. Besides, it is a medicinal plant, you have to harvest its flowers just as soon as they open anyway.


WEEK THIRTEEN

October 5th - Warm autumn


October flowers

I'm always in awe of the energy that propels fall bloomers to spring forth flowers, often weeks or days before the first frost. There are so few of them, and understandably so.

I'm not talking about the frost tender plants from warmer zones that act as annuals in cold climates, those whose winters were supposed to be mild but had to surrender their natural growing cycles to the whim of the hardhearted northern gardener.

I'm talking about the plants that have adapted to bone chilling winters, thick blankets of snow and long months of hibernal light. The plants that have, deeply ingrained in their genes, the expectation of deep freezes and whipping blizzards, and still bloom in spite of them or, more likely, because of them, as an ultimate affirmation of life.

Some are burly and tenacious, equipped to withstand a frost or two, and even keep their foliage through milder winters, but others are so cold tender that a single night's chill would kill them, and yet they abandon themselves to bloom, with the expectation of this harsh reality, in a battle with nature itself to ensure their offspring.

And then others just appear delicate, like the toad lilies in the photo, which look like orchids but are as resilient as hellebores. When the other flowers have already retired for the season, that's when they get their time to shine. The later they bloom, the more they stand out, towering over the fall garden's barren leaves and dried up stems like daring and defiant fighters. I can never get enough of them!


Fall border

Between the forty five degree mornings and the eighty degree afternoons, I don't know if I'm coming of going anymore. So much so that I had to look at the calendar to remember it is almost time to plant spring bulbs. Or not.

Good gardening practice advises to plant them after October 15, but if it's still warm they get confused and I don't want a garden full of tulips at the end of November. I guess I'll wait a little longer to plant them, I doubt the soil is going to freeze any time soon.

Meanwhile, the garden looks like this: summer annuals in bloom among dried leaves, in bright sunshine. Too warm, too dry, too cold, too wet, too much. They don't care! It's fall, I think, at least that's what the calendar says, as opal basil displays its second flush of bloom, next to the catmint.

Relentless nicotiana from three years ago decided to germinate at the end of summer and is now flaunting broad foliage. By the way, if you consider planting this germination maven, run fast in the opposite direction: weeds have nothing on this plant!

Otherwise everything seems kind of random, the leadwort bloomed early, the cosmos bloomed late, only the sedum stuck to its schedule, to make everything else seem even more out of sequence.


Banana peppers

The kitchen garden picked up speed instead of slowing down, all the vegetables are in bloom again, only they know why, especially the eggplants, which are covered in sophisticated lavender flowers as we speak.

Late fruitfulness also visited the tomatoes and peppers. The tomatoes probably won't ripen this late, but the peppers seem to be doing alright for themselves.


The first leaves of fall

Leaf season started, as always, with the sugar maples. The warm, cold, warm again weather, with temperature swings of up to forty degrees creates the perfect conditions for spectacular foliage color.

It's still early for it, at least in this area, but I'm looking forward to nature's beautiful display of coppery hues later in the month.


WEEK FOURTEEN

October 12th - Bright orange


Kitchen garden marigolds

Isn't this beautiful? Few annuals are easier to grow than marigolds, a quality that makes them so ubiquitous one tends to overlook their genuine charm.

All a marigold needs is sunshine, everything else it will do for itself. Of course, because I planted mine in the vegetable patch, they were blessed with an extra helping of fertilizer and water and that made them extra enthusiastic.

They are not my favorite flowers, and usually don't fit into a color scheme that invariably shifts towards blue and purple hues, and their pungent scent is a little much for me, but I need to give credit where credit is due: this velvety blossom can hold its own with the carnations and the roses.

At the end of the season, the garden shifted towards orange, with the calendulas and the marigolds wrapping up the flower show.

They are useful plants to have in the vegetable garden, where their scent wards off all sorts of pests, from aphids to nematodes, and where, unlike the delicate nasturtiums, they can withstand heat or dry spells and stand their ground when faced with the rapacious growth habits of the squashes.


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