Desertscapes of Guanajuato, Mexico

1 CharcoHeartCharco del Ingenio Botanical Garden, located in the outskirts of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico, contains many surprises, including a heart-shaped cactus paddle that might be the ideal valentine to send to someone who’s giving you a hard time.

We spent a morning there last week, exploring and photographing the desertscapes and plants: the life-size inspiration for our garden club’s trough gardens.

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I hope they are inspiration to anyone considering ripping out lawn and installing a xeriscape of water-conserving desert plants and rocks.

One of the highlights of the Charco del Ingenio (pool of inventiveness) is its glass Conservatory of Mexican plants. A sign at the entrance instructs visitors to speak in very quiet voices.

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These desertscapes invited a closer look:

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These plants grow all over San Miguel, in window boxes and in walled and rooftop gardens. One of the most impressive rock gardens is in the community where we stayed, a few blocks from Parque Juarez:

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These succulents grow in colorful pots on the patio of our host:

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We spent our last day at Mineral de Pozos, a formerly abandoned silver mining town that is being renovated as a tourist destination, with museums, hotels and shops:

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We enjoyed lunch in Pozos at the restaurant at Posada de las Minas hotel and spa, among these surroundings:

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Coming soon: posts on streetscapes and rooftops of San Miguel and the amazing Los Locos parade.

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Sabores San Miguel


Last weekend, leafy Parque Juárez, just a few blocks from where we were staying, was the site of a three-day food festival, Sabores San Miguel. Hundreds of people gathered under a tent erected on the basketball court to savor wines, mezcal, and small plates made by the best chefs and restaurateurs in San Miguel de Allende. And to listen and dance to live music by some great bands.





TacosMy lunch. A picadillo taco and a taco that contained a small masa creation stuffed with cheese and topped with mole sauce.



RosewoodChefs2Cooking demonstrations went on every afternoon. Here, two chefs from San Miguel’s Rosewood Hotel make “Ceviche de Camarones con Agua Negra” —  shrimp ceviche wrapped in thin slices of watermelon and garnished with a delicate ancho chile sauce. The chef at right is flaming large corn tortillas from Oaxaca.


Rosewood_CevicheThe finished dish. I loved the unusual, thin, crispy, charred tortillas, asked and was able to take the ones not used for this demo home and serve them at our dinner party that evening (which was enjoyed outdoors as music from the park wafted over the trees).

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It’s Not Tough To Be a Trough Gardener

I  joined fellow members of the Garden Club of Irvington on a recent visit to Oliver Nursery in Fairfield, CT, where we got an expert demonstration on how to plant troughs.

Although “trough” is one of the weirder one-syllable words in the English language — shouldn’t it be spelled tr-aw-ff ? — troughs are not tough to put together, we learned, and can endure many years as garden focal points. Like miniature landscapes, they feature an array of compatible tiny elements — usually succulents, evergreens, or other rock garden plants — arranged with small rocks and top-dressed with fine gravel.

Our club is preparing and entering a trough garden to compete in the Zone III Garden Club of America flower show presented by Three Harbors Garden Club in Woodbury, NY, which will be open to the public free of charge June 9 and 10.

The competition rules are as follows: “A collection of three or more shade-loving perennials exhibited in a trough 12″ or less made of hypertufa, cement, or a natural material. Minimum of six months ownership. (That means the plants must be grown in your own garden; you can’t run out and buy and plant them a day or two before the show.) Several of us grow shade-loving perennials, and we met last week at my friend Renee Shamosh’s garden to plant the trough. Here are step-by-step instructions:

1. First, prepare the trough and the soil, which must be free-draining. Recommended is a layer of fine gravel topped by planting mix with a generous amount of Perlite added. This is Renee’s 12″ cement trough:

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2. Next, line up all the plants you’re considering. Four of us brought our offerings of small rooted offshoots of tiarella, astilbe, heuchera, sweet woodruff, miniature hosta, and ferns.

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3. Start arranging plants the trough, moving them around until it looks like a natural miniature landscape with a pleasing blend of leaf shapes, colors, and textures.

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4. Get in there to make sure the roots are planted. Proper tools are a tiny shovel and nimble fingers. The small scissors are used to trim any brown edges or errant stems.

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5. Rinse the arrangement off with a gentle shower from a garden hose, touch up (we used clumps of moss), and admire. Let the plants settle in a protected location.

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Renee had already made this beautiful, larger cement trough with succulents from Oliver Nurseries, now marked with botanical names, and top dressed with fine gravel.


I used small molded plaster containers and Mexican pottery containers. When working with Semperivum tectorum (hens and chicks), I learned at Oliver, the  “chicks” can be gently removed from the “hen” and planted separately. Thus, one $6.98 plant, most of which is in the “tree-trunk” planter at left, yielded babies for three other planters. Next, a trip to the pet supply or aquarium store to buy the mini-gravel for top dressing..


Lots more information is available from the North American Rock Garden Society.

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A Visit to the Philadelphia Flower Show

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The theme of this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show, which runs through Sunday, is ARTiculture. Art museums, including the Guggenheim, the Getty, and the Smithsonian, have teamed up to produce spectacular exhibits.

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The show is crowded, commercial, expensive ($32 per ticket + parking) and wonderful. There’s snow on the ground in Philadelphia, but landscape and floral designers have brought spring—and all seasons—inside in a series of showy displays. Above, the “ARTiculture Garden” at the show entrance.

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The competition section features entries from local horticulturists and garden club members.

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I was most enthralled by the succulents and the evergreens.

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One of the most touching displays is the collection of blue ribbons won by Mrs. Samuel M. V. Hamilton, described as “one of the most prolific and passionate participants in the Flower Show’s horticulture classes… a fierce competitor who eagerly sought new challenges.” Mrs. Hamilton retired from competition this year, but “generously offered to display some of her favorite specimens,” including her topiaries, flowering trees, orchids, and clivias, which surround her awards.

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Current prize-winning plants include this Euphorbia Esculenta (above) and Hart’s Tongue Fern (below).

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In the floral design section of the competition, themes are expressed in niches the size of department-store windows.

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And (after watching a few live demonstrations and taking a breath) there is, of course, shopping. The Marketplace consists of twelve aisles of vendors selling fresh plants and flowers, garden furniture, decor, seeds, pottery, jewelry, antiques, vases. Judging by what people are carrying around, a bunch of pussy willows at $3.95 is one of the most popular purchases.

I couldn’t go home without a few wonderful things to plant, and after some deliberation, chose three ferns from Wedgewood Gardens in Glen Mills, PA. A future prize winner in the making?

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Then, dinner at Vedge Restaurant on Locust Street. On Saturday, Chefs Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby will be demonstrating their unique vegan recipes in the show’s “Garden to Kitchen” studio.

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The SNAP Challenge, Day 5 (and what I learned)

Yesterday was leftovers day. Breakfast, store-brand rice crispies with half a banana; lunch, leftover tuna pasta salad and an apple; dinner, leftover rigatoni with meat sauce and sautéed escarole on the side.

After another rice crispies breakfast this morning—my last meal on the SNAP Challenge—I survey what’s left over: one apple, a few stalks of celery, a quarter of an onion, an inch of olive oil, a few slices of too-soft, packaged bread, most of the can of the generic coffee.

I told a social-worker friend I was doing this, and he laughed: “Julia Child takes the SNAP Challenge!” Then he started running down all the reasons—that I hope I’ve pointed out over the past four days—why he thought it was a ridiculous exercise: “You know how to cook! You have time to do it. You have a car. You have access to stores like Apple Farm that don’t exist in poor neighborhoods. You don’t have any kids at home clamoring for stuff they see advertised on TV. People on food stamps lead entirely different lives.”

But it wasn’t a ridiculous exercise. No, I didn’t go hungry. The cupboard wasn’t really bare; I just ignored what was in it, and other than a little mayo and catsup, only cooked with what I was able to buy for $5 a day each for two people. All along, I hoped that my descriptions and pictures of food didn’t seem like I was preaching or showing off: “Look what I can make in five days for $50!” Because I grew up with a mom who put nutritious meals on the table for a few dollars every day, I did want to show that with a bit of planning, extreme-low-budget cooking doesn’t have to be all rice and beans.

What did I miss? The stuff that adds color and interest to our food: spices and fresh herbs, scallions, balsamic vinegar, lemons, dried fruit and nuts. Things that come in jars and bottles: roasted peppers, Dijon mustard, olives, pickles.

What did I learn, or re-learn? Discipline. I ate less food, smaller portions, no seconds. No desserts. I ate at regular times. No snacking. Because I didn’t consume a big snack in the afternoon, I ate dinner at 6, not at 9, so I didn’t go to bed with a full stomach. I lost four pounds.

What was most surprising and disappointing was that hardly anybody seemed to care about the SNAP Challenge. My Facebook posts only got a few “likes,” and the only comments on my blog posts were from a guy who wanted to use them as a forum to complain about how people on food stamps cheat the system and eat better than he does. My blog posts, however, about celebrity gardens in the Hamptons and about what a chef went through when he competed on “Chopped” are evergreen. Lots of people are interested in a private garden with an original Richard Serra Tilted Arc sculpture and whether contestants know beforehand what’s in the mystery baskets.

Here’s an idea. Maybe I should get a celebrity spokesperson and re-cast the whole story as The SNAP Diet: Snap your fingers and lose four pounds in five days for only $5 a day. The rules are simple:
– Eat smaller portions.
– No seconds.
– No snacking.
– Other than black coffee, your only beverage is tap water (ice cubes allowed).
– No dining out.
– No desserts, chips, cookies or candy (even on Halloween?).

Oh, and please have compassion for people who live and eat this way, not by choice, but because they have to. Donate to your local food bank. Volunteer at soup kitchens and hunger-relief organizations. Instead of sending your clients holiday gift baskets, donate to Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign in their names.

Your clients will appreciate it, I promise. And so will the kids. Now I’m thinking about lunch. At the local Chinese restaurant … roast duck wonton soup with tofu and scallions …

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The SNAP Challenge, Day 4

Two days to go and I’m out of fresh vegetables and fruit.

Day 4 Breakfast: Store-brand rice crispies with soy milk. Canned pears.


Day 4 Lunch: Scrambled eggs, cottage cheese, whole-wheat toast. Tomato soup made by blending the contents of a can of stewed tomatoes with soy milk. Without fresh vegetables, lunch looked like a hospital meal. Without curry or dill or other seasoning in the soup, it tasted like one too.

I’m looking forward to tonight’s dinner of rigatoni with meat sauce. What to serve with it? All that’s left in the vegetable bin are a quarter of an onion and some lettuce, which I need to stretch for two days. On Saturday, I’d spent $46.55 of my $50 budget for five days. I have $3.45 left. What can I get?

AppleFarmI go to Apple Farm, about four miles away, which sells produce for less. This shopping trip hits home. For people on a tight budget, there’s a real big difference between buying apples at $1.29 and .79 a pound. You can feed another mouth or get enough for another meal.

I ignore the fresh fish and Italian cheeses and pick up fruit: two apples @ .79 per pound for .80, two bananas for .44. Vegetables: to give color and crunch to salads, one bunch of radishes for .99, one red onion for .36. And then a head of escarole, the cheapest green, for .90. Total $3.49.



Day 4 Dinner: Rigatoni, which had been on sale for .99, with meat sauce made with a base of finely chopped onion, carrot and celery cooked in a little olive oil, then simmered with the rest of the ground beef and canned tomatoes. To make sure the meat wouldn’t spoil before I cooked it, I’d made it the day before while the chicken and vegetables were roasting. The cheapest ground beef, 20% fat, made for a too-fatty burger on Sunday, but the flavor is just right for meat sauce. The radishes and red onion brighten up the wedge salad, made with the last of the head of iceberg. I chop up a few leaves of escarole for bitterness and garnish, saving the rest for tomorrow’s dinner. This is the best meal of the week.

A number of politicians, including Newark mayor Cory Booker, have taken the SNAP Challenge. Many have pointed out that most SNAP recipients don’t have cars and don’t have access to stores like Apple Farm. If you do, is it worth it to drive four miles to save 50 cents on a pound of apples? Usually not, but yesterday afternoon it was.

Even suburban areas like Westchester County, New York, are losing their lower-cost food-shopping options. A large A&P, where many lower-income people shopped, closed more than a year ago. The space is being renovated for a Pet Smart and a Chef Central, which sells high-end cookware. There used to be two excellent produce markets nearby. One is now a Waldbaums and the other is a CVS. Both sell packaged snacks—cookies and chips and candy—not fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs and cheese. As Booker points out, “Folks on SNAP don’t always have an abundance of wholesome food available to them and end up consuming many empty calories.”

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The Snap Challenge, Day 3

The headline in today’s business section is “Twitter Prepares to Feed New Hunger for IPO’s.” My thoughts are about different kind of hunger, that of the millions of Americans who have to feed themselves for less than $5 a day (it’s $5 in New York, about $4.50 in the rest of the country) and aren’t play-acting the role for five days.


Day 3 Breakfast: My French toast breakfast — made with store-brand whole-wheat bread soaked in one egg beaten with soymilk — finally puts me in touch with some of the challenges of the SNAP recipient.

What am I going to cook the French toast in? I’d forgotten about that. I have to cheat and use a pat of butter from the fridge. And what to put on it? I don’t have any syrup. I’d forgotten about that, too. Even made with that too-soft, tasteless bread, it tastes okay without syrup. But what if I were a real SNAP mom and my kids were clamoring for syrup and jam? And for stuff pushed at them on TV, like Cocoa Puffs or Lucky Charms, or Jimmy Dean Breakfast Bowls and Egg McMuffins? What if I didn’t have time to cook anything or even to cut up fruit?

Cooking everything at home not only requires more planning, it requires, of course, more time. Not only the time to cook, the time to clean up, to wash the utensils, the bowls for the cut-up fruit and soaking the bread, the frying pan.


Day 3 Lunch: Pasta salad. I cook about a quarter of the box of rigatoni and add a can each of tuna and chickpeas, some sliced celery, a few grape tomatoes, a bit of chopped onion and dress it with a teaspoon of olive oil — enough for four servings. I’ll be eating this again.


Day 3 Dinner: Chicken thigh roasted with the last of the grape tomatoes and the last of the bag of carrots. Romaine salad. How are the croutons left over from Saturday lunch and stored in a baggie? Inedible, stale and soggy. For dessert, the rest of breakfast’s fruit salad — made with two apples, one orange and one banana.

My mom made that fruit salad all the time. She fed her family of five on a few dollars a day, including making lunches all of us took to school or work in metal lunchboxes. We dined on stews, stuffed peppers, spaghetti with meat sauce, meat loaf, always with vegetables and a tossed salad on the side, bread and butter, pudding or jell-o or homemade cake for dessert. Then I moved out and discovered Gourmet magazine, Julia Child, Balducci’s and Zabars. I inherited the frugality from my Depression-era parents, but like many people these days, I’m a bit spoiled. Salads seem to require arugula and radiccio and frisee. I buy stuff I never had at home as a child: Greek olives, roasted peppers, tamari almonds, dried figs, wedges of Parmesan. I don’t ever have to think: One potato needs to feed two people, or I have to make two meals from one pound of hamburger meat. Usually I’d make two burgers, have some meat left over and throw it away a day of two later. We waste way too much food.

This is a week without waste. I’m planning ahead, not snacking, and limiting portion sizes. Ordinarily, I’d have two chicken thighs for dinner, not one. But to stay within the budget I have to stretch a package of four pieces to two meals, two in Sunday’s chicken soup and two tonight. Is that such a bad thing? We’ve been told over and over that a portion of meat, chicken or fish should be the size of a deck of cards. A dietician once showed me appropriate portion sizes on a chart. “Those are toddler portions!” I said. “That’s all you need,” was her answer. We Americans eat way too much. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of Americans are obese. That’s another thing to think about, even when feeling solidarity with the one in six Americans who are strugging with hunger.

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