Monday, October 13, 2014

Harvard Museum of Natural History: Glass Flowers are Just the Start!

A couple of weeks ago we went to Boston and went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. I never tire of natural history museums, especially older ones that have the history of the institution layered on top of the specimens seen there. Though this museum has just gone through renovations, they preserved the charm of the original displays.

This small museum has a few treasures, but most amazing is the glass flower collection commissioned back in 1886 by Professor George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of Harvard’s Botanical Museum. Over 49 years, this collection was hand made by Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolf Blaschka (1857-1939), father and son glass artists who lived and worked in Hosterwitz, Germany, near Dresden. Every one is perfectly detailed.

There are 847 life-size models representing 780 species and varieties of plants in 164 families as well as over 3,000 models of enlarged parts. The Glass Flowers are on permanent display in the where they draw nearly 200,000 visitors each year. My husband walked by this example of his favorite weed, this great mullein, not realizing that it was made from blown glass. Once it sunk in, he looked at every specimen, stunned. This artist team also made replicas of the reproductive parts of each flower magnified.

What we learned was that this artist team also made many glass examples of marine life. These were so delicate and exquisite. Here are a few pictures (that may be a little blurry) of some specimens. Some so odd and difficult to make out of glass!

But then we came into the great hall of mammals. I got the same feeling I got as a child being amongst the giants that roam the earth.  This museum is laid out like natural history museums of its era, where there is a gallery on the second floor, to view it all from above.

Their tiger collection is exceptional. And of course they have the hanging whale skeletons that everyone loves. In the gallery, the skeleton comes right into your space as you walk the second floor.

Their bird collection was impressive in range but a bit worn looking. Many of these animals were collected at least a hundred years ago - so I think tired goes with the territory, so to speak. You certainly wouldn't want new specimens collected! I did love the hand carved little stand for each display though - these were clearly made for the original displays.

This is what makes it so rewarding, it becomes a museum of a museum, its own institutional history being on display for all of us to sense our place and time in the continuum. Our need and love to collect, categorize, and display our world can be seen in this gem of a museum.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Maine Coastal Botanical Gardens

I had not made it to the Botanical Gardens this summer, so we decided to drive up on a gorgeous fall day. Thinking that most things would be past, I wasn't ready for the beauty that was still at it's best.

Supplementing all the gardens were arrangements of pumpkins, artfully adding color.

I realized that in summer I look at the plant varieties, learning new hybrids, but in the fall it is all about structure. Color and form become more apparent. The drifts of foliage in fall colors was stunning.

I love the living roofs on both the children's garden and the labyrinth hut. In fall they take on the look of hair that has been in the sun all summer!

Living roofs are being used more and more in architecture especially in urban contexts. Keeping urban places cooler by absorbing heat instead of reflecting it back into the atmosphere, they provide good insulation and absorb rainwater.

A well done display of pumpkins..this vignette by the children's garden has really matured since I last saw it. Grasses have come in around the pond and there is something for the eye in every corner.  It reminded me of Marie Antionette's Petite Trianon...a fantasy land for children and adults!

The pumpkins lead your eye along the paths.

My favorite walk though is down to the meditation garden. We always stop at the waterfall to get ideas. There is something satisfying about these planters and the cutout granite basin.

Probably the most familiar sight is this glass sculpture on the hill providing a beautiful contrast to the woods around it. The cut glass twinkles in the understory. Perhaps most striking this time of year, this piece becomes more part of the landscape as moss grows on the bottom and roots itself into the forest floor.

The setting sun was stunning as we reached the bottom. The only people in the meditation garden, we sat for a long time enjoying the smells and sounds around us. We might have been the only relaxed entities in the forest though. All the animals were very busy- no time for meditating! We were almost run over by squirrels running around defending territories with their squawks. Birds madly flew from tree to tree eating seeds and insects. Everyone was so focused on what they were doing we could get very close. Here a little red squirrel munches on perhaps a bud for next year. All this activity made us hungry for our own into Boothbay Harbor we went. What a perfect afternoon.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Backyard birdfeeder: Seeds and Fruit Aplenty

How many goldfinch can you see in this photo? We seem to have a flock of American Goldfinch in our yard all year, but in the fall the flock grows to at least 35. Very social, they fly from the white pines in the yard to the lilacs by the feeder in groups. You know they are there before you can see them by their constant chatter and high chirping. They love the fact that I didn't deadhead my echinecea.

It made me look for all the seeds and fruit near our house. Here are the small but abundant hips from the small pink swamp rose that is all along the roadside.

Elderberry is blue black this time of year.
Native peoples used this plant as a diuretic, laxative and wound poultice, but Robins, Nuthatches, Bluebirds, Mockingbirds, Cardinals, Kingbirds and Phoebes all use this berry as a food source. Our area is rich in Phoebes, so we can't know which comes first the bird or the berry!

Here another beauty, wild on the side of the road, maybe escaped from some old farm..a wild crabapple I think. Laden with fruit that is small enough for birds to dig in. Rich in Vitamin C and seeds for protein.

Here is another crabapple- just wild along the road. So pretty..who knows the variety from years past. It isn't one that I am familiar with, the tree was more spindly than those we find today in garden centers...but wow, that fruit is gorgeous! So much to eat out there, the bird feeder stays full, but the yard is full of chirping. Be on the lookout for what birds like in your yard...and maybe plant more of that next year. It is great for them and very entertaining for us!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Probiotics: Sauerkraut is supreme!

There is a lot of talk about how important it is to keep the bacteria in our gut alive and healthy. 

My great grandparents knew this as did all peasants. Pickles and fermented foods were a huge part of their diets. These foods have all the bacteria we need to keep a healthy digestive tract. Mostly importantly though, they are delicious and have been incorporated in traditional cooking in every country! Southeast Asians know how Kim Chi can balance a meal, the Germans know that sauerkraut is the perfect balance to a heavy sausage. The world has always used these foods that aid in digestion.
With our medicinal use of antibiotics, these foods have regained the notice they deserve as a way to restore the bacteria we destroy.
There is little so beautiful and good for you than cabbage. To make this super easy recipe for sauerkraut here is what you will need:
5 lbs of cabbage
3 tablespoons of sea salt
and a container in which to ferment.
Process the cabbage the way you like. I used a food processor that I have had for 30 years set to make slaw. Finely chopped it will all ferment together nicely, but you can certainly hand chop your cabbage for a heartier texture. Add the salt as you go, in between layers so that the salt covers everything.  This will make the water release from the cabbage and create it's own brine. After 24 hours, add a touch of water to make sure it all is under the brine.
The brine is what you want. Pack the cabbage in a container that you can also apply a weight. Now is where I have to talk about one of my favorite friends, Carol Patterson. A docent at the Portland Museum of Art ( where I've worked for the last 9+ years), we always find so much to talk about every time we meet for lunch. One day the topic turned to pickles! She, of course, had made many pickles in her day but hadn't in recent years. She offered me her wonderful crock made by an artist on Peak's Island some 30 years before. This crock is made in the traditional way, where the weight for the pickles, fits perfectly inside and is heavy to keep the vegetables below the water line. Where the fermentation happens and the oxygen is crowded out.

Any ceramic bowl will do, and then look for a plate to fit onto the top. You can weigh the plate down with a milk jug, stones or anything  heavy enough to keep all the fermentation below the water line.
Eh voila! In a a week or so things will start to burble and froth. You can skim off froth and mold, but these are only on the surface..fermentation is happening. Happy biotics are cooking along. After you try this batch..and are ready for another...add any vegetable you like..onion, carrot, beet..anything ferments in this way. Couldn't be simpler or healthier.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Best Summer Photos

It has been a cool and fruitful summer. We have enjoyed great harvests,
and so have the woodchucks. Luckily the woodchucks liked the raddichio
best, which I had planted too much of, and they left us some of
everything else, (although we will see who wins the battle over the
Tuscan Kale!)

Garlic, red and green cabbage, Tennis Ball lettuce, Bright Lights Swiss chard, Cherokee lettuce, summer savory, grey thyme and my favorite Chioggia beets. The strings defining each row are more a dog deterrent than for straight lines. If I put a string on each side of the row, our dog Lily is less apt to run all over the rows!

Every year I say I will paint these antique architectural brackets before the rose comes in, but then spring hits and I promise to do it in the fall. It has been over 4 years now...

Reseeded from the fields, I don't mind this native version of rudebeckia, it is welcome color in the late summer.

 In this herb garden, in the spring it is all purple/blue. Catmint, baptisia, chives,
egyptian onions, lovage, lemon balm, lanium and boxwoods.

 In early summer the peonies bloom under our sunroom window, the hostas are still in control. Here is the Euyonomous that got hit by the Bradford pear next to it one winter ago. Luckily you can cut these back hard and they will fill in within a season.

Pre-woodchuck, the kitchen garden at its best.

Always expanding, this part of the kitchen garden is stakes and large things. Tuscan kale, tomatoes, onions, shallots, purple brussel sprouts and snap peas. This was taken before the woodchuck dug the whole to the center of the earth in the middle!

 Daisies, always welcome. At dusk they glow.

Brights Lights swiss chard and Mammouth Red Rock cabbage...gorgeous!

 Perhaps my favorite picture, taken when color, texture and variety are at their best in the kitchen garden late July. Fun to remember how it all on to fall!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Garlic Harvest!

Everyone who has gardened for awhile will give you their theory on when to harvest your garlic. All I can say is that for the past couple years the harvest has been great, and here is what I have been doing....
  • I put them in the same spot every year, probably not the best advice since this crop takes a lot from the soil, but I do it purely because it looks best against the wall where I put them, first in the spring when nothing is up, then when the scapes come up and add a curly sculptural element behind all the other color and texture.
  • Last year, I took most of my kitchen scrap compost ( we have in a bin outside) that wasn't nearly composted, and put it directly in the soil before I planted the bulbs. I mean whole eggshells, slimy banana skins, everything! I buried the uncomposted compost a bit in the soil to let the microbes have at it. After all, they would have all winter!

  • Then I bought the largest of the German Hard Neck bulbs I could find in the Farmers Market and planted each clove 2 inches deep in the soil and kitchen compost. They were about 4 inches apart. I planted them in early November. They say that only large cloves produce large cloves...
  • I added about 2 more inches of regular compost in early June after they were about 2 feet high.
  • Then when the scapes came up, I left some on, and others I used in arrangements or to cook with. I didn't seem to matter, the bulbs were of equal size whether the scape was left on or not.

I once heard from a farmer that you should harvest when the scape uncurls and the tip is parallel with the horizon. This sounds scientific, but I think you should leave it in the ground until the scapes go straight, and they are about to bloom. Many people take the scapes off to encourage bulb production as opposed to flower production. This makes sense to me, they just look so great in the garden, I tend to keep many intact. I also heard from friends that harvest should happen when you are down to 5 green leaves on the stalk. I like this theory, and really that is about the same time as when the scapes uncurl. In Maine, I would say the first weeks of August are a safe bet!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Star Island Pel Garden: Sustainably Reusing What You Have

Star Island, off the coast of New Hampshire, has always had a huge interest in consuming less, recycling more and a holistic approach to every resource used. It is after all, a rock 8 miles out to sea, with no fresh water, not much growing space, and 300 people a week during the summer months. Oh...and the 100 people who run the island, most of which are between the ages of 18-25 called Pelicans ( Don't ask me why. All I know is Pelicans are Pelicans!)

Sustainability starts with reuse of the things we have used. Star Island, in the Isles of Shoals, has chosen to become a leader in sustainable living through a total overhaul of all the consumption and utility usage delivery systems on the island. In the Pel garden though, reuse starts with what they have a lot of...empty bottles! A clever way to make raised beds for vegetables, it is not a bad look
with the early morning sun glinting off green glass!

The other thing they have plenty of is seaweed! Seaweed makes excellent nutrient rich mulch as we see here in the potato mounds. The garden layout is a mix of European rows of lettuce and greens with the Native American tradition of mounding certain vegetables in hills. Cardboard and hay are also used as mulch. This garden produces 1000 lbs of vegetables a season and thanks to a new WOOF program, expertise and volunteers are plentiful.

Much of the garden has a ordered chaos feel that is its charm. Spinach, beans, chard, potatoes, lettuce,
and squash populate this garden by the sea. Watering is by cistern water, collected from the rain off buildings and stored in holding tanks.  

Volunteer Pels and visitors keep the weeds at bay, but even time and energy are at a premium out here. Weeds that don't affect production are allowed to grow, and compost from the island goes on the beds. Star Island's incredible efforts to make almost everything on Island be compostable ( I mean composted in 1-2 years, not 20 years) and reusable is phenomenal. Every trash station has three bins for recycling, compostable waste, and trash with clear signs describing what can go in which bin.

The Garden log is a nice touch for those who visit the garden. This tradition can be seen on many remote islands, where a log for visitors to sign in and comment is held in a rain proof box. I love reading all the comments from people from far away who come to visit this garden and who are impressed by its charm.

But it is the flair of past Pelicans and volunteers who have created this garden that I love. Of course it is not without its sculptural focal point, a toilet surrounded by a platform of brick cascading with annuals! What could be more appropriate for this island where used things can become new again. Click here to read more about the incredible advances Star has made toward sustainability and here to read the sustainable pelican blog.