Archives for category: Gardening

CRR is a tree hugger. Growing up on the sparsely-treed prairie, it was probably preordained that he would become a lover of trees.

During the Dust Bowl, topsoil literally blew away as winds howled down the prairie. With little natural tree cover, there was nothing to stop the clouds of dirt. Convinced that trees could break the wind, FDR ordered up “shelterbelts,” rows of trees planted by CCC and WPA workers. By 1942, 220 million trees had been planted along 18,600 miles stretching from the Dakotas to Texas. Those rows of trees defined the countryside where we grew up.

Now we have a big suburban yard with dozens of tree specimens, and CRR can name them all. When we first bought the property, the yard had been neglected for years. He brought in an arborist to identify the trees and diagnose what ailed them.

The arborist condemned the persimmon that shades the patio and a giant locust that towers over the property.

The arborist underestimated CRR’s tree powers.

He slowly nursed the persimmon back to health, with some foul-smelling ointment and a burlap cIMG_1315 (2)oat that wrapped it for two seasons.

The giant locust was a bigger project. The arborist predicted it would eventually split in two, fall, and damage our house (or our neighbor’s). CRR brought in a landscaper who cabled the thickest trunks together – even the derecho of 2012, with its winds gusting up to 80 mph, didn’t bring it down.

Snowmageddon took a big chunk out of the magnificent magnolia that graces our front yard. The tree doctor said it would never regain its shape – wrong again, with CRR’s pruning guidance.

When 9-year-old Sam brought home a sycamore seedling from his school’s Earth Day celebration, he and CRR planted it and nursed it to the rangy specimen it is today.

His latest project? A bigleaf magnolia, a mere sapling now that promises plate-sized blooms in a year or two.

IMG_1284For his attention to the trees — mulberry, sycamore, magnolia, dogwood, crepe myrtle, arborvitae, pine, persimmon, locust, tulip poplar, ornamental cherry, cypress and a forest of hollies – CRR has earned the title of tree whisperer.

Happy Father’s Day to a wonderful husband and father of our two sons.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, Va.

 

 

 

 

As I ambled around our gardens yesterday, glorying in the first real sunshine in two weeks, I marveled at the beauty of the roses. Big blooms, heady with perfume.

Then it struck me: Our roses utterly adore the British-like cool rainy weather that has marked the first weeks of May.

That triggered memories of a May trip to London. Mourning the loss of a job I loved, I skipped town – to London, to seek solace with Chris and Jeff.

Chris knew just what I needed: a week-long tour of gorgeous British gardens. From Regent’s Park to Kew Gardens to St. James’ Gardens and Chelsea’s physics garden, we admired and sniffed our way through glorious May flowers. The roses were incredible – bowers drooping with the thickly petaled roses of England, their scent drifting across the manicured lawns and parks.

Sissinghurst was the crown jewel of the week: more than 400 acres of flowers, just a short train ride away in Kent. Chris and I spent the day wandering from one beautiful corner to another of these storied gardens. Imposing crown imperials (George Washington’s favorite flower), tulips and dozens of varieties of daffodils. Clematis, wisteria, azaleas, honeysuckle. Penstemon, foxglove, allium.

And the roses, oh those roses. They were other-worldly in their abundance and beauty. On trellises, climbing up brick walls, adorning stone arches. The entire day was a sensory cacophony.

That trip was a balm to my soul. My mother had urged me for years to stop and smell the roses, a cliché that I disdained until, finally, it made perfect sense.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, Va.

Sorry I have been AWOL. Blame the job. I will try to do better this year.

Mother’s Day seems like a great time to renew this blog, since my mother has been such an inspiration to me. She’s 84 and she’s still gardening.

OK, it’s gardening “lite” – last year she had one cucumber plant and one tomato plant. But she still glories in the small joys of gardening: choosing just the right plant, procuring the right soil (JJJJ, this is your department) and nurturing the plants to harvest. I think she’s a “vegetable whisperer.”

It may be a micro version of the enormous garden she once had, but on the other hand she no longer has to feed six hungry mouths. She only has to enjoy the gifts that God gives us, with her expert care and vigilance against varmints.

Mom: CRR is trying to grow some gooseberries from seed. I remember them from Grandma Benner’s garden, small seedy juicy berries that we ate straight from the plant. They’re called husk cherries in other parts of the country, which I discovered in St. Louis last summer when a James Beard nominee chef joyfully incorporated them into his dishes.

Mom: I don’t “can” tomatoes like you did, but I diligently cook tomato sauce and freeze it, a frugal streak I got from you. Though I have to say, this time-consuming kitchen work is tried when I see that I can buy two 15-ounce cans of diced tomatoes for $1. Really, all that work for 50 cents?! I guess it’s the “love” component.

tulipMom: My flower gardens are a direct tribute to your love of gardening. All year long, as I baby the flowers and admire their beauty, I think of you. The lilacs just finished. Roses are blooming. Soon we’ll have iris and peonies and hydrangea. Everything in its time.

These things, so tangible yet so intangible, I owe to you. We owe to you.

Happy Mother’s Day.

xoxo, your favorite daughter (sorry, sibs, you knew that was coming)

Sandy K. Johnson is a journalist in Washington, D.C., and mother of two sons. 

Note: The pumpkins are back! Recycling this column and encouraging everyone to buy a pumpkin at the church on the corner of Quaker & Seminary in Alexandria. It’s a small price to watch little children giggle and toddle through the pumpkin patch. 

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I know fall has arrived when the Episcopalians set out the pumpkins.

The front yard of Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill turns orange with pumpkins every October. The congregation unloads hundreds of pumpkins of all colors and sizes, trucked in from a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Then church members sell the pumpkins (and some other goodies) from morning til night, through Halloween. The profits go to local charities like ALIVE! and Carpenter’s Shelter and international ones like Heifer International. “Buy pumpkins, help the world,” the church sign says.1186252_518431311583381_357164123_n

Like many places in 250-year-old Alexandria, Immanuel has a historical footnote. Gerald R. Ford lived a few blocks away and the Ford family attended Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill for years. He served as an usher and the first lady taught Sunday school (presumably before presidential duties intervened).

The church plays a role in our family history as well. After we moved to this neighborhood, we would roll a red wagon to the pumpkin sale with our sons and they would carefully choose among the pumpkin bounty. One year, Sam insisted that I not discard the pumpkin “guts” when we carved his pumpkin, and make a pie instead. So from that year forward, I have roasted a pumpkin and pureed it for a pie. A little more work than the $3.19 canned pumpkin from the store, but it brings back memories of Halloweens past.

This year, our “mystery” volunteer plant in the garden turned out to be a pumpkin vine that sent runners around two sides of the garden. Though lush with many blossoms, it produced exactly two pumpkins. CRR turned one into a savory pumpkin soup. The other one will be carved at Laurie and Mark’s annual pumpkin salon.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

 

I have been privileged to dine at some great restaurants.

Dinners at Le Bernardin before I even knew who chef Eric Ripert was. Same with Jean-Pierre. Dinner three nights running one magical week at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans in the era of chefs Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme. A buffet catered by Alice Waters. Dinner at the original Spago by Wolfgang Puck (ask me about him sometime…). Citronelle, Jean Claude, Le Bec Fin, Café Milano, Nobu, etc.

It is one of the few privileges of being a journalist – to dine with the rich and famous while you are neither.

This week I dined with journalists at a restaurant in St. Louis that is the equal of any of the elite. It was a meal that one jaded journalist said was the best of her life. I told her: if you can remember any one dish in six months, then indeed it was the best.

Where? Farmhaus, in St. Louis, where chef Kevin Willmann is at the helm. Born into a farm family, raised on the Gulf of Mexico, trained in kitchens all over and then came “home” to cook his own food, a passionate blend of local ingredients from Missouri, Illinois, the Mississippi River and the Gulf.

Willmann delivers. I had an amazing meal there with 20 journalists chosen for the National Press Foundation’s food and farm sustainability seminar. His restaurant is normally closed on Mondays but Chef Willmann made an exception to teach journalists about his special brand of locavore.photo (27)

He created a menu to showcase the best of the season:

*Missouri caviar (from paddlefish) on a corn blini

*Charcuterie board with porchetta di testa, smoked hogs head, chicken liver mousse, cheese and assorted embellishments

*Summer veg salad with corn, pepper, tomato, goat cheese on a lettuce leaf.

*Snapper en papillote with chanterelle mushrooms, husk cherries and fennel

*Bacon-wrapped meatloaf with charred tomato reduction

*Peach cake with candied ginger streusel and blackberry sorbet

Did I mention the local wine and beer pairings? Without reservation I can recommend Farmhaus. If you’re in St. Louis, see a baseball game or walk the amazing botanical gardens. Then find an hour or two for Farmhaus, a foodie’s dream.

Watch the 5-minute video by NPF digital manager Reyna Levine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eu9a6rpGVOM

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

We planted Swiss chard for the first time this year, our experiment of the year. Chard’s vibrant colors are a tip-off that it is packed with nutrients. Indeed, chard ranks third on the CDC’s list of powerhouse vegetables. I am a huge fan of spinach, so it should follow that I’d enjoy chard too. But it’s just a little too tough for my taste. We tried several recipes (thanks Michelle!) and I gamely chewed, and chewed. photo (23)

Then CRR came up with a great idea. Use the chard as a substitute for spinach to make spanakopita. Brilliant (as he will tell you). Credit where credit is due. We dined on chard-akopita last night with the first of the garden beets. A feast for a king/queen!

CRR’s Chard-akopita

2 lbs chard, washed, trimmed, coarsely chopped

2 T extra virgin olive oil

Handful chopped chives or scallion

2 c crumbled feta

1/2 c grated parmesan

2 large eggs, beaten

1/2 c finely chopped fresh dill

1/3 c finely chopped parsley

1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

18 9×14 sheets phyllo dough

2 tsp milk

Heat saute pan over medium high heat. Add chard and toss with tongs until it is wilted, about 4 minutes. transfer to a colander to cool. Then wring as much liquid as you can from the wilted chard. Add oil to the pan and cook scallions until soft and fragrant. Add the chard to the pan. When it is cool, add cheese, eggs, herbs, nutmeg and salt.

With a pastry brush, lightly coat bottom and sides of a 9×13 pan. Working quickly, lightly oil one sheet of phyllo and place into pan. Repeat with 8 more sheets, alternately each so the phyllo reaches halfway up the sides. Spread the filling evenly. Then top with 9 more phyllo sheets, oiled one at a time and alternated so they reach up the sides. Then gently push the edges down so the filling is enclosed. With a sharp knife, gently score the top phyllo layer, being careful not to cut through to the filling. Using the same pastry brush, brush the milk along all the score marks; this will keep the phyllo from flaking up. Bake at 375 for 35-45 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm or at room temp.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening