Tag Archives: Deborah Silver

The Kitchen Garden Contained

Is it possible for a vegetable to reach celebrity status? Tuscan kale has seemingly reached a kind of stardom with both ornamental and vegetable gardeners.
Brassica oleracea var. acephala, aka Italian lacinato, Nero Toscano, black kale, dinosaur kale. I grow very few vegetables, but when I read Deborah Silver considered this kale a star of her 2010 ornamental containers, that was the push I needed to sow just a few for my mom’s vegetable garden last fall. Most brassicas are an effortless winter crop for our zone 10, and the kale was every inch as splendid as Deborah’s words and pictures described, so I sowed more for myself early this spring. By this time, though, I decided I wanted to eat them. Occasionally, with cannelini beans and parmesan, but also in soups, even raw in salads. These were from the fall-sown plants, some leaves harvested in early April.

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Obviously, my life is lived through blogs these days. After admiring these handsome plants all winter in my mom’s garden, I finally got around to a taste test when Noel Kingsbury blogged that this kale was in reality too tough for eating. (“I once grew ‘Nero de Toscana’ kale, now a very trendy plant amongst heritage veg growers. Its tough leathery leaves were greatly inferior to any other kale I’ve ever grown, old or new.”) I respectfully disagree and want to eat lots more. (Roll the leaves into a cigar, chopping into half-inch pieces. Leaving the stems on or de-stemming is up to personal preference.)

But where to plant them? It would have to be containers. Call me an effete, a sissy, but I don’t want to start a practice of growing vegetables in black plastic nursery containers next to the tetrapanax and arundo. I may eventually get there, but not this summer. And I wanted to keep the veggies segregated, growing the kale with two other good-looking vegetables, the purple climbing bean ‘Trionfo Violetto’ and a climbing squash ‘Trombetta di Albenga.’ Ideally, the beans and squash would climb up the grapevines planted in the garden behind the terrace. This is a lot to ask of a very small space, so I’d need a deep container.

Finally, I decided these air vents from the building supply giant we’ve nicknamed Home Despot were an inexpensive solution I could live with.
I moved out a little table and chairs from the terrace and placed the vents bottomless on the brick-and-sand paving. Filled half with potting soil, half with a good, chunky compost.

Planted 3/31/11:

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The grapevine, strictly ornamental and not for eating, clambers up these chains, which I’ve hung the past couple years to replace a trellis that obscured too much of the garden in winter. The back garden curves like a horseshoe around this little terrace. It’s much easier to reach through the curtain of vines, even in high summer, to attend to the plants growing in the border behind the grapes.

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May 1. The grapes are well up the chains, the soil has not run out the bottom of the vents, and the plants are flourishing.

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By June 7 the squash’s massive leaves are weaving up the grapevines, lush and free from insect damage so far.
The beans have reached the top of the pergola, and I found a purple pod about 5 inches long yesterday.
But this may ultimately be far too crowded for healthy, productive growth. Fun, yes. Practical? Possibly not.

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I’ll know by the end of summer. I’d be happy just to harvest a few squash.
I’ve pulled all the fall-sown kale at my mom’s vegetable garden and planted our tomatoes.
Kale is not a summer crop for zone 10, but I’m going to leave this plant in the vents to watch it run to seed.*

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*Pulled the aphis-infested kale 6/14/11. Insect-free fall/winter/early spring crop for zone 10.

4th of July Manifesto/A Garden Needs Legs

In a long growing season, a garden needs legs. A firm belief of mine is that it must not be allowed to flag or pause or become excessively disheveled.
(Would that I was imbued with a similar belief system for the inside of the house that the garden surrounds.)
And by “legs” I mean, for example, that you’re not waiting for the dahlias to bloom, with little to look at before or after. Staying power.
Where summer turns buggy and humid, a garden’s legs may involve leaping over the miserable months with a firm landing in autumn.
How one goes about giving a garden legs will be, obviously and appropriately, a uniquely personal and regional response.

Back in May, the view from the kitchen windows.

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And today. (Nice job by that one allium on the left, eh? One out of a dozen planted. All the rest no-shows. Making appropriate adjustments in next year’s order, e.g., 36 bulbs equals 3 blooms.)

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This may not be enough of a summer garden for some. I’m just happy the proportions are hanging in there and there’s enough going on to hold my interest. Unless you’ve got a second home to retreat to mid-July, the garden has to be your sustenance, your reason for coming home after a grueling workday. And I’ve had too many out-of-control gardens by July. But it is a compromise. For me, an explosion of perennials would mean looking at mud the remaining nine months of the year. Include too many of my beloved architectural plants, like agaves, yuccas, or the gorgeous shrubs like the dark lophomyrtus and golfball pittosporums pictured, and you can unwittingly achieve stasis, gorgeous though it may be. My eye (and nervous system) craves the changes that ephemeral plants bring. It’ll be interesting to see if that ruby grass near the center, Melinus nerviglumis, blooms well in this spot. And when the purple orach is finally cut down, that dark smudge between the pitts, Salvia canariensis planted behind the orach will be visible and just might be in bloom for fall. If not this year, then the next. Behind every blogger’s garden photo is a cold calculus, a complex web of reasons behind why those plants pictured were grown and why others perfectly amenable to that zone weren’t.

And what can look overwrought to some can be sorely lacking in excitement to others. I would love to seat Deborah Silver and Keeyla Meadows together at a dinner party and eavesdrop on their discussion of this subject. Deborah in Detroit, with a very short growing season, favors a timeless, classical approach, clean lines, no strong contrasts, a celebration of green, with color provided mostly by annuals in pots. A friend arranged for a visit to Keeyla’s chromaphilic garden near San Francisco last week, and Keeyla apologized for the lull in flower interest and color. She needn’t have. Sensory overload never looked so good. Keeyla would doze off in my garden. What would Deborah garden like in San Francisco?

Some years the garden’s legs are stronger than others, but every summer brings its successes. By July, it’s fairly clear what counts as success and what doesn’t (alliums again). One thing I’m very glad to have planned for this summer was sowing a few Centhranthus ruber, white valerian. I know I may have ended up inviting a rambunctious character into the garden, but for now am just enjoying how its billowy clouds unify the garden and give it legs this summer. I love the golden trinity of the New Zealand wind grass, the Sedum nussbaumerianum, and the Euphorbia tirucalli, moved out of the center in the top photo to make up this triad. The eye ricochets from the deep amber sedum to the grass’s golden fountain like a carrom shot. The medio-picta agaves pick up the white in the valerian. A ‘Hopi Red’ amaranth will soon be towering above the wind grass, making another carrom shot from the ‘Zwartkop’ aeonium opposite.

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Mercifully, there’s no rule that says every gardener has to select plants from the same genera. In fact, we can skip entire genera if they turn the garden into a shambles by July, some having consumed half the garden’s resources, not to mention the gardener’s resources, by the time they take their leave. For a garden not to collapse mid-summer, hard choices have to be made. Some lovelies with lengthy, post-flowering hangovers will have to be excluded.

Modest, simple flowers can be just as enjoyable as those from the more celebrated genera. Allium senescens, brought home from Filoli, planted up close in a pot. Nice leaves too.

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Some gardeners, even those with enough sun, say no to flowers entirely. As Uncle Monty in the film Withnail & I crankily opined, flowers are just tarts, prostitutes for the bees.

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Well, I say let the bees have their tarts, but don’t let their inclusion spoil an otherwise perfectly enjoyable garden. No tarts with mildewy leaves, for example. And either they quit the garden party gracefully and entirely when done flowering or offer up some fine seed heads into the bargain.

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More legs, now of the literal kind. These are the garden’s Martian walkers or tripods. Succulent baskets hang from the top, vines like asarina, dolichos, and thunbergia grow up the green wire bases. This one grows the variegated trailer Crassula sarmentosa. Dolichos lablab vine, unseen in the photo, has reached the top and just started to bloom. Purple pods should be appearing soon.

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Gardens need legs. Another July, another manifesto. Thank goodness outdated garden manifestos can always be composted.