The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene
January 22, 2014
We have now had the opportunity to assess the injury to the kitchen garden from the recent severe weather. Spinach, corn salad and winter cress are all unharmed. Of all the cabbages, the savoy is clearly the hardiest. The other varieties show various degrees of damage to their outer leaves but the hearts remain crisp and sweet. The Russian and the Tuscan kale are utterly destroyed. Siberian kale is burnt back but the heart is yet resilient. Scotch kale is the hardiest off all and has passed the storm unscathed.
Parsley under bells as well as broccoli kept under canvas and hoops are perfectly preserved. Of the artichokes and cardoons under canvas and hoops both cardoon are yet alive but the yearling artichoke has perished while the second season artichoke still lives. Lettuce and the potted ornamentals within the frames are flourishing.
In the midst of this remarkably cold season there are yet the awakenings of tender spring. The Wintersweet (Chimonathus praecox) has opened its fragrant blooms. This Asian shrub is so remarkably fragrant that it perfumes the entire garden and is quite pleasant when sensed from afar. On a closer approach, however, its fragrance is so cloyingly sweet that many find it repulsive.
The first of the tiny snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) have now pushed their gay bells through the frozen soil. This old garden favorite is best planted in bunches as explained by Mr. Miller: “the Flowers are small, yet when they are in Bunches, they make a very pretty Appearance.” He goes on to describe another of their most valuable attributes: “these Flowers thrive well under Trees or Hedges, they are very proper to plant on the edges of Wood-walks, and in Wilderness-quarters.”
January 16, 2014
In the last week we experienced the coldest weather we have been exposed to in many years. In anticipation the cabbages were covered with brush, clipped from a privet bush we keep at the back of the orchard for just this purpose. While the outer leaves of less cold-hardy varieties, such as the Oxheart, were ruined, the hearts remained perfectly sweet and sound. The Savoy cabbages were unscathed. In the herb bed we took the precaution of wrapping the trunk of the Bay Laurel. As we are near the northern terminus of its range it is prone to frost cracks. In this malady the trunk will split along its entire southeastern side where the morning sun first strikes it. A wrapping of canvas or other like materials will prevent the uneven warming of the trunk which causes the malaise.
It is at this time of year that one has the opportunity to mend the walkways. Most of our walks are edged with poles fashioned from the Black Locust tree which are first stripped of their bark and then laid horizontally along the paths. Of all North American trees, Locust poles are most durable for ground contact.
It is interesting to speculate on the origin of the name for this tree. It was first mentioned by William Strachey in The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania (1610). He described it as “a kind of low tree which beares a cod like to the peas: we take yt to be locust.” The name stuck. The locust tree of Europe that Mr. Strachey compares it to is better known today as the Carob tree. It is doubtful that Strachey ever saw a Locust or Carob tree as this Mediterranean plant will not grow in England, but he may have seen the branches of the Carob pictured in signs above the doors of goldsmiths. It has long been believed that the large, uniform seeds of the Carob provided the original carat weight. Both the Black Locust and the Carob tree are members of the large Fabacea, or Pea, family and, having similar leaves, this is likely the source of the confusion.
January 8, 2014
We have discussed what skills are required for the production of vegetables all the year round so it is now only fitting that we expand our conversation to consider the rest of the garden.
While the vegetable garden must still take precedence over all other aspects of the art there are roses and shrubs, flower and herbs, brambles and tree fruit that also require our attention. Beginning next week we will begin our progress, week by week, through all the seasons of the year as I intend for this to take the form of a Garden Calendar.
Garden works in the form of calendars were very popular in 18th-century England and North America. Nearly all the early American works on horticulture took this form, including Squibb’s “Gardener’s Calendar for South-Carolina,” Georgia and North Carolina (1787); Gardiner and Hepburn’s “The American Gardener” (1804); and McMahon’s “American Gardener’s Calendar”(1806).
It is my greatest hope that you, too, will share the experiences of your garden with us all for as that most eminent Williamsburg resident and ardent gardener John Custis was like to observe, we are all “Brothers of the Spade.”
I have included a crude plan of the garden so that you may picture in your mind’s eye where the work is accomplished and for those of you that have been so kind as to pay me a visit hopefully a pleasant remembrance.
Yr. most humble and obedient servant,
January 1, 2014
Now, as the sun begins its climb through the dull days of winter to its verdant zenith in glorious spring, we are in the season of the collard green. This is the most ancient form of the Brassica Tribe that originated on the cold shores of Western Europe and reached its exuberance of diversity along the Mediterranean coast. Before the heading cabbages or the flowering broccoli, before the cauliflower or the Brussels sprou,t there was the “colewort.”
These simple, open-headed “cabbage plants” were the most common green in the midlevel pottage and, in 18th-century England, a surety against severe weather when other greens perished, as described in “Modern Eden”:
“Some of these should always be raised in a family kitchen-garden; if the weather proves mild, they may be eaten by servants; if hard, they will be very useful to the master.”
The colewort fell out of favor in the second half of the 18th century and was replaced by cabbages harvested before they headed. As Bernard McMahon explained in Philadelphia, “Savoy, Battersea and Sugar loaf cabbages are grown for a supply of young greens and when used in that state they are called coleworts, having totally superseded the true colewort, which was formerly cultivated for boiled salads.” In 1831 the colewort was declared extinct in England by George Loudon.
It was preserved, under the phonetic variation of collard, in the American south, primarily by American blacks, and is now the iconic winter green amongst southern gourmands. The most common variety in in the modern garden is the well-known Georgia collards. These are large plants with blue green leaves. One of the most ancient of the American collard varieties is known as Green Glaze. This is a somewhat smaller plant with darker, coarser leaves, but has the advantage over the Georgia collards in being much less attractive to the caterpillar of the familiar Cabbage White butterfly.
I was born in the mid-west, grew up on the Pacific coast and was educated in New England. I have learned to dine, however (through the felicitous marriage to an accomplished cook) in Virginia. It has long been believed that a dinner of collard greens and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day is a sure harbinger of luck in the following year.
To sit before a steaming platter of greens and peas on New Year’s Day is luck indeed and I wish all of you the best of luck in the coming year.
December 25, 2013
We spoke last week of the Jerusalem artichoke so it is only fitting at this festive time of year to speak of the true artichoke, one of the greatest luxuries of the kitchen garden. This was an astonishment to the Roman author Pliny the elder who lamented the practice of consuming the prickly ancestor of the artichoke: “Alas for the monstrosities of gluttony! It would surprise us if cattle were not allowed to feed on thistles, but thistles are forbidden to the lower classes. We turn even the monstrosities of the earth to purposes of gluttony, and actually grow vegetables which all four-footed beasts without exception shrink from touching.”
In 18th-century Williamsburg, artichokes were grown only in the gardens of gentlemen and other experimental gardens as their culture was not yet familiar to all. Hugh Jones recorded in The Present State of Virginia (1724): “The worst thing in their gardens, that I know, is the artichoak; but this I attribute to want of skill and good management.” It is their difficult culture that makes the artichoke an item much desired by gentlemen and others who prize rarity and exotic cuisine.
We have found that artichokes are best started from seed in mid-July which produces a plant mature enough to withstand the rigors of winter with some protection. As they will in no way tolerate a soggy soil they are planted on earthen mounds and mulched all around with straw to keep the frost from their roots. When the temperature is predicted to dip below 25 degrees, the plants are covered with canvas sheets to keep frost from their hearts. From these plants the first artichokes are harvested in May and June.
In my own household we have long made the Christmas dinner a feast of crab and artichoke. Both are dipped in the same sauces and both require a certain dexterity so as the fingers are busy it stimulates a more congenial conversation. May the company at your home be ever amenable and the Christmas season joyous.
December 18, 2013
We are now digging the Jerusalem artichokes, which are not from Jerusalem and are not artichokes. This curious name was remarked upon by William Salmon in 1710:
“How it should be accounted among the Species of Hartichoke is difficult to conceive…the vulgar seldom give Names to Plants according to Judgment, and therefore it is not to by wonder’d at; all that can be said for the Name is, that when it is boiled and drest, it has a little likeness in taste to the bottom of an Hartichoke; but why it should be called Jerusalem, is more to be admired at, for that it came not out of Asia, or Europe, but from America to us.”
In fact, it is the only native North American vegetable of note.It was in 1605 that Samuel de Champlain first recorded it growing along the coast of present-day Massachusetts and described it as having “the taste of an Artichoke.” The origin of “Jerusalem” is not as clear. Many think it a corruption of Girasole, the Italian word for the sunflower, the Jerusalem artichoke being a member of that tribe.
However, the first English use of the name Artichoks of Jerusalem was recorded in Venner’s Via recta ad vitam longam in 1622, and the Italians did not adopt Girasole for the sunflower until 1666, so the etymology of Jerusalem in the Jerusalem artichoke remains a mystery.
As with many roots, they are much sweeter after being touched by frost so we typically dig them in early December. It being so extremely wet this year in Williamsburg we are somewhat late getting them out of the ground. For the largest and best-formed roots it is important that they be dug every year. Beds of Jerusalem artichoke that are allowed to stand for two or more years become overcrowded and produce inferior roots. After the roots are harvested we immediately replant, using only the largest, best formed roots placed at approximately four inches deep and one foot asunder.
They may be boiled or roasted but, in my opinion, are best used as a pickle. Regardless of the preparation it would be wise to heed the words of Mr. Randolph who cautioned, “Some admire them, but they are of a flatulent nature and are apt to cause commotions in the belly.” You must choose your company accordingly.