A Walk Down the Road

There are still patches of snow on our lawn. Yesterday, I woke up to a fresh coating of white all over everything. Around here, in the New York City suburbs, everybody wants to know when winter will be over. Many have escaped to warmer climates for spring break. Our spring break was a few weeks ago, in Northern California. We rented an AirBNB house in Sebastopol, a town about 50 miles north of San Francisco. As I recover from my strained muscles from shoveling snow, I’ve been enjoying browse images from a morning walk.

Spring had  arrived and everything was bursting into bloom. The woman who owns the house keeps chickens, and it seems everyone on the road has farm animals—and/or a vineyard. I learned that llamas like to eat apple cores and peels.

Sebastopol House

Spring  Road-Vineyard



Farm Animals


And then it was on to a day at the beach at Bodega Bay, watching the Pacific break over the rocks, and a picnic.

What is surprising about all these scenes is that California is in the midst of the drought crisis. California looked green driving all the way to Los Angeles. I’ve seen it much browner  along Highway 101. Today, Governor Jerry Brown imposed water restrictions on homeowners and farms and other businesses. We shall see what the summer and fall, the growing and harvest seasons, bring.

Pray for rain. Lots of it.


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It’s Spring! (in Northern California)

The snow is falling again in the Northeast, and I look out at the fading light in my garden, which is two colors: the gray of the tree trunks and branches and the white of the snow.

In San Francisco, however, though the air is chilly, spring is popping out all over. Last week, I spent a peaceful afternoon in the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park. Besides the California poppies, every kind of spring-flowering tree and bulb is in bloom. The Garden is divided into collections, including the Southeast Asian Cloud Forest, Moon Viewing Garden, and Garden of Fragrance (aah, jasmines!) I loved the giant succulents, vines, and tropicals, and the little wildflowers peeking out. Here are a few of my favorite shots:



Passion Vine


At the garden shop, I was particularly taken with this mountain lilac or Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’ for sale for $9. The tag said: “20 ft height and width, upright habit, very fast grower, sun, tolerates any soil; low-no water; hardy to 14-20 degrees F, 20-25-year life, light-med blue flowers 6″ spikes.” So what’s not to love about this plant? Must look for it here in Westchester nurseries. Oh-oh, tag also says: “Deer love new growth; do not plant in high deer areas; no fertilizing, soil disturbance, soil amendments. In other words, leave it to be happy in the California deserts.


Monterey Cypress

Monterey Cypress




VW Bus

Another genus and species (almost) native to California. This VW bus is the home office of a cartoonist who outfitted it with computer, sound systen, wi-fi. He parks it around San Francisco and enjoys the view while he works and sends emails.


Posted in Horticulture, Nurseries and Garden Centers, Public Gardens, Travel-California, What's Blooming Now | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Julia Child’s Kitchen

On a recent visit to Washington, DC, there was nothing I wanted to do more than visit Julia’s kitchen at the new Smithsonian National Museum of American History on the Capitol Mall.

The museum has the vibe of the office building it once was, but Julia’s home kitchen is authentically Cambridge, Massachusetts circa 1970s. It contains the tools and equipment from the time Julia began working on her first cookbook through to 2001, when she donated it and all its accouterments to the Smithsonian Institution.

Visitors are greeted with videos of Julia’s famous PBS series, “The French Chef” — even though some critics liked to proclaim that she was neither French nor a chef. Okay, more accurately, Julia Child (1912-2004) was “The American Author and Cook Who Brought French Cooking to America.”


Julia on TV

TV Chefs

And there’s a wall of images of other TV chefs. Look, there’s the Galloping Gourmet and Mario with Martha Stewart. Oh, well.

Of the kitchen itself, I was a little disappointed that visitors can’t walk inside. But even through the plexiglas walls, it was a delight to see and experience. It was real and made for cooking, not for show. No granite countertops, no open plan with center island and all the other bells and whistles people want to today. Just good, solid, sturdy appliances and the kind of pots and pans and utensils you can really cook with.






I learned to cook by cooking my way through Julia’s books, and was happy to see that she had the same beat-up, food-stained cookbooks as I.


Here are some of my favorite pages, with helpful illustrations from “Mastering The Art of French Cooking.”

3 Julia Asparagus 3 Julia Mushroom 1

A few years after I moved to New York and (temporarily) got a bit disillusioned with the graphic design business, I wrote Julia a letter and asked her if she needed an assistant. She wrote a lovely note thanking me and advising me to “plunge right into all the food opportunities in New York.” I so wish I’d saved that letter. I would frame it and treasure it… or maybe I would send it to the Smithsonian.

After Julia’s kitchen, there’s a whole food floor of American-food-themed exhibits with everything from TV dinners to BBQ aprons, and then floors of fascinating Americana including various First Ladies’ inauguration gowns.

Too bad the food in the cafeteria is so dismal. They didn’t learn anything from Julia, even how to master the art of the tuna sandwich.

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Kiku at The New York Botanical Garden

An Immortal’s Elixir Chrysanthemum dew:
Lift it up.
Take a big sip
And you will be immortal
Not aging, not dying!

–displayed on the Botanical Garden’s Poetry Walk

Kiku LogoKiku means chrysanthemum in Japanese, I’ve learned, and this is chrysanthemum-viewing season in Japan, where the flowers are trained, staked, and composed with mathematical precision. I and other members were  privileged to learn this on Friday morning from New York Botanical Garden president Gregory Long, who introduced the current exhibition in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory: “Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Garden.”

I didn’t check out what was the exhibit was about beforeheand, and naively arrived at expecting spare environments of raked sand, rocks, bonsai, bamboo, Buddha statuary, and koi ponds. I was in for a surprise. So were many other guests who toured this remarkable, unusual exhibit.

Ozukuri Kiku Rows

Every blossom is staked to stand perfectly straight—the flower heads resting upon little wire racks—and to play its part in a carefully engineered, geometric composition.

The exhibit was designed by Francisca Coelho, the Garden’s VP for Glasshouses and Exhibitions. She and other staff members traveled to Japan to learn about the art. She was assisted by Kiku expert Yukie Kurashina, who oversaw the training of the flowers.

Francisca Coelho Francisca Coelho, above, explained to guests how a single stem is trained to produce hundreds of blossoms in an Ozukuri, a dome-shaped array, which is grown in a specially built wooden container. “The plants are cultivated from tiny cuttings,” she said, “pinched back, tied to frames, and nurtured for more than a year to form arrays of blooms in traditional forms like domes and cones.”


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BambooThe New York Botanical Garden is hosting a number of  Japan-themed events—talks, poetry, a pop-up restaurant, and a bonsai demonstration—related to the exhibit, which closes on October 26.

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A Chinese Garden in a New York Backyard

Dongkai Zhen in her Irvington gardenAt the end of May, I took my daughter-in-law, Yan Zhang Miller, to see the garden of the newest member of the Garden Club of Irvington, Dongkai Zhen.

Dongkai, left, has lived Westchester County, New York, for 24 years. She and her husband, Dr. Jiyi Wang, are pathologists who work in hospital labs. They’ve raised two children here, Kate, a resident at Stanford University Medical Center, and Kevin, a student at Brandeis University. Their hobby is organic vegetable gardening. But it’s way more than a hobby. It’s a way of life.

My daughter-in-law was born and raised in a rural area of the People’s Republic of China before her family moved to Beijing. Now she and my son Alex live in San Francisco, where she volunteers two days a week at the botanical garden in Golden Gate Park. As soon as Yan stepped into Dongkai’s garden, she said, “A real Chinese garden! For eating. Not for decoration.”

Every year, Dongkai and Jiyi build structures from tree branches on which to grow tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and squash. In beds under the structures, they plant their favorite herbs and greens. Here is the garden at the beginning of the summer with its structures, trellises, and supports in place:

spring structure2

Spring tructure1

spring pots 2

Spring Tomato Net

Most of the plants were grown from seeds and seedlings purchased in Flushing, Queens.

spring pots 1

Here is the garden two weeks ago:

Full Structure

And close-ups of some of the most prized specimens:

Bottle gourd. In rural China, they really get hollowed out and used as bottle, Dongkai says

Bottle gourd. In rural China, they do get hollowed out and used as bottles, Dongkai says

Hot peppers —apsicum annuum ‘Kung Pao’

Hot peppers —apsicum annuum ‘Kung Pao’

Cherry tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes

Bitter gourd or balsam pear

Bitter gourd or balsam pear

Chinese cucumber — Dongkai says it has thin skin, no seeds, and delicious, crunchy texture

Chinese cucumber — Dongkai says it has thin skin, no seeds, and delicious, crunchy texture

White-skinned eggplant

White-skinned eggplant

Amaranth, a Chinese vegetable like spinach

Amaranth, a Chinese vegetable like spinach

Wild yam, which has medicinal uses

Wild yam, which has medicinal uses

I’m ready to learn how to cook with these vegetables. Aren’t you? Next spring, let’s go to Flushing, Queens, to buy seeds and seedlings. And have lunch at one of Dongkai and Jiyi’s favorite restaurants.

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Along the Road

Her name is Bernadette, and she’s been living in the same light green ranch house, around the corner from our rabbinical house in Norwich, CT, for more than 50 years. When she’s not tending her own garden, she’s beautifying the rock garden along the road.

After two hours or more heading northeast on I-95, this strip of rock garden is what always welcomes us to the neighborhood. Ahh, we’re here!

NorwichRoad 1

I’ve been watching this roadside garden for three years, and this is the first time I stopped to speak with Bernadette. She didn’t want her picture taken, but was happy to tell me about how the petunias and pink ice plants (oscularia deltoides) and moonbeam coreopsis bloom year after year. “I only planted here once,” she said proudly. “Everything self-seeds.”

Norwich Road2

And, she pointed out, she also takes care of the strip across the street. Here it is, on Sunday, in early fall. I’ll be checking in and posting photos of this extraordinary example of civic pride all year ’round.


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A Family Farm in the Hamptons

When you think of the Hamptons, do you think of boldface names, private jets, multi-million-dollar mansions, and parties you’re not invited to? Think again. Off Route 27, there’s a whole ’nother side of the Hamptons. Drive slowly and you’ll see signs like this, on Old Country Road in Westhampton.


Five dollars? Really? From another angle the handpainted signage is even more enticing.


The roadside table is on the honor system, with a cash box, and the flowers really are five dollars for a big, colorful bunch. The tomatoes are five dollars for a big bag. And they are great.



After making a big hit with my hostess gift of a bunch of zinnias, I biked over the next day and met the owners, Dermit and Carol Corcoran of Corcoran Farm. “My grandfather worked the same land, where he grew beans and hay for the horses and cows,” says Carol. “The plot where the zinnias grow used to be the pasture, so the soil was really rich. We were the first organic farm in the region and the first CSA in New York State. Everybody thought we were crazy.” Dermit moved east from Brooklyn to farm with Carol, and together they’ve built this 10-1/2-acre farm and raised four children.




They graciously took me behind the scenes to see the greenhouses and flats with seedlings. “The plot has new deer fencing,“ Carol pointed out. “For the first time this year, the local deer seem to be enjoying zinnias.” She practically apologized for the size of the zinnias. “After a very cold winter and late start, they finally bloomed and were like dinner plates the other day. The biggest ones have all been picked and sold.” And, Dermit noted, “No chemical fertilizers or insecticides have ever touched this soil.”

This labor of love that starts in early mornings and goes through the evening yields—in addition to the zinnias and tomatoes—peppers, onions, eggplant, herbs, and several other varieties of flowers. Can a family make a living with a small farm like this? Yes, says Carol. “We don’t just sell from the roadside table. We sell at local farmers markets and to restaurateurs who want the freshest organic local produce.”


Carol Corcoran

A daughter is about to be married, and Carol is growing flowers for the bouquets. Guests will be wowed. The five-dollar bunch I bought more than a week ago still looks perfect on the table on our deck. Julius and I will be back tomorrow morning for more—on the way to another beautiful mid-week in Westhampton.


Posted in Farms and Farm Markets, Food from the Garden, The Hamptons, Travel-USA Northeast | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment