If Duke Farms can live with dandelions, should I?

183B6D70-D1D0-40C1-98C6-54610F440B89I finally visited Duke Farms in Hillsborough. This is the former estate of tobacco heiress Doris Duke, which until not that many years ago was only open for tours. The foundation that runs the place has made some changes — her house has been torn down, and the focus is even more on sustainability and native plantings. Clearly that includes no (or perhaps minimal) pesticides, and their gardeners have not been charged with digging up dandelions or my other nemesis, hairy bitter cress.

Given that I filled the better part of a five-gallon bucket with dug-up dandelions yesterday and have another two giant recycling buckets full of hairy bitter cress just waiting for the monthly yard waste and brush collection, should I just learn to chill?

I hope to be back in a few months to see the meadow in bloom. But do not come here looking for a traditional garden with lots of flower beds.

Here are some other images from the day:

A ruin? The foundation of the mansion James Duke stopped building after his tobacco business was broken up.


Another ruin? The remains of the burned-out hay barn and what I think sums up Doris’ taste in sculptures:


The coach barn (first for horses, then for cars) … because every garage needs a clock tower.


No, this wasn’t the house.


The Durham bull, to pair with the one I saw on a bike trip through Durham


Can I have a piece of this hosta? I like variegated ones.


And some brilliantly colored orchids in the Orchid Range (Doris was big on orchids).







Another kind of harvest

Olives on the treeThis has nothing to do with my garden (sorry), but it’s too interesting not to share: An olive harvest in Umbria.

Thanks to a friend who goes to the same spot in Italy every year, I was able to see the harvest at La Montagnola, an olive farm that also rents out really nice rooms and apartments to tourists (= Agriturismo) that is about 10 miles from Perugia in central Italy. This was an opportunity I was not going to pass up!

Once upon a time, olives were plucked from the trees manually using what’s essentially a small hand rake. But now it’s mostly mechanical, at least in this part of the world. It goes like this:

Think of an upside-down umbrella attached to a tractor that envelopes the skinny base of the tree. The tree then gets a good shake for 5-6 seconds, and the olives fall into the umbrella:

Olive harvest: The upside-down umbrella

But not all olives are ready to fall. To get at the many that are still clinging to a branch, the next step uses a gadget (powered by something) with rake-like tines that loosens them, and in they fall into the inverted umbrella.

Raking the olive trees

The other half of the two-person team uses an orange hand rake. It’s different from trying to detangle long hair in that you start at the top, hold on to the branch a bit up from the bottom to protect the newest growth, and work fast, rather than painstakingly attacking each knot (olive) gently.

The olives eventually all end up in the container attached to the umbrella, and it’s time to move on to the next tree.

Overall, the workers told me, it takes 5-6 minutes, maybe 10 minutes, to do one tree.

La Montagnola has 6,000 olive trees (and several varieties) in the various groves on the hills, so the harvest takes six weeks. Vittoria, the owner of La Montagnola, says each tree on average produces three liters of olive oil.

By the way, here’s the view from the part of the farm where I stayed:

The view from halfway up La Montagnola

Before the advent of the machines, the harvest was done by hand. And Vittoria did let us try the old-fashioned way: Clambering up a ladder with rounded steps, grasping a branch and raking out the olives with that orange hand rake. A tarp replaces the mechanized umbrella.

Vittoria told us that the harvest can be done differently in other parts of Italy. In Puglia, down in Italy’s boot heel, it is much warmer, and olives can be left to fall naturally to the tarp below. Because they are on the tree for longer, the taste and chemical breakdown of the oil is different.

Harvesting of course is just the first part. The olives (and the bits of leaves and branches that some are still attached to) get dumped into a giant wheelbarrow-like dumpster and then into big crates, where they are then screened to get rid of the biggest pieces of debris, then washed and screened some more.

Only then does the pressing begin. The olives turn into a paste and then the liquid is extracted. The paste gets reused as a form of compost, oil and water are separated again, and you end up with a really nice olive oil:

Fresh olive oilI came home with olive oil made on Friday and bottled just for me on Sunday. It can’t get much fresher than that!

Here’s my video of the harvest.

We also did an olive-oil tasting. I admit that I don’t have the sophisticated nose to distinguish subtleties (same with wine!), but there was no missing the difference between store-bought, mass-produced oil oil and its solvent-like smell and the smell of olives in Vittoria’s olive oil. Vittoria also helps evaluate olive oils so she knows how to spot the tricks and even which olive oils really can’t be from the area.

Olive oil tastingJust as with wine and grapes (or anything from your garden!), the soil and temperatures influence the final taste. Olive oils, like wine, can be a mish-mash of oil from everywhere (and as long as it’s bottled in Italy, it’s Italian, even if the olives come from elsewhere). Or it can be from one small region, with its own Denominazione D’Origine Controllata, and even be a single variety of olives, just as with wine.

One difference with wine, though, is that you want to use your olive oil when it’s young and fresh. You don’t age fancy olive oil the way you wage a fine wine. The oil I brought home is best when used by Dec. 15, 2014. (Stamped by hand on the label too!). Somehow I don’t think the olive oil on our supermarket shelves is anywhere near that fresh.

Buffalo Lessons

We aren’t going to make the giant Buffalo garden tour this weekend, but luckily the greater Buffalo area has many weeks of garden festivities, including smaller garden tours each weekend. So we went up this past weekend, saw gardens in two communities and came away inspired. These people did great things in small spaces, created rooms and in some cases filled in their lawns with flowers. (OK, that’s a harder one for us, since we have more land. But we can go bigger on the beds!) When we saw one with just perimeter plantings, it looked, well, boring, neatly kept as it was. No features to draw you in. That was a big lesson.

The bottom line: We need to come out of our comfort zone and if we mess up, we can always change. Nothing is permanent. And we’re lucky to have so much sun, as a neighbor pointed out this evening.

I’m definitely becoming a fan of local tours that are open to all who want to share their garden, rather than those that showcase fancy ones. I want to see something that’s attainable!

Among the ideas we’ve brought back:

– Put in a proper path in the front bed that goes diagonally from the front walkway, so we (and others) can walk through the flowers and have an easier time seeing the garden from both sides. We pretty much know where it will go. We’ll just have to move a few plants (easy!) and get some paving stones to make it work. I’ve thought about whether we also should bump out that part of the bed to make the curve more pronounced and make the path a bit longer, but I’m not sure whether that will happen this fall.

– Expand the bed against the back of the house that includes the air conditioner and is otherwise full of hostas. Prep work will be done this fall (strip the grass on the lowest lawnmower setting, borrow a rototiller if needed and haven’t run out of time, cover with newspaper or cardboard to smother the grass and weeds, cover with compost/mulch and let it all rot down over the winter). It will have a curve and will mix in walkers’s low and black-eyed susans with the hostas, which are pretty crowded. The area is half-sun, and you already see that the hostas there are lighter than the ones in full shade. Amazingly, the deer don’t touch these. Maybe I’ll add another deer-resistant plant to help make sure they stay away. That bed will be one side of the path from the deck to the raised beds. The other half may have to wait a year. Wonder if a berm would work for that one?

bowling balls in the garden
Maybe not quite this many...

– Rather than buying glass gazing balls as ornamental sculpture, we will look for free/cheap bowling balls and bird-bath stands that can serve the same purpose. I’ve just left a post on Freecycle, so we’ll see what happens. If you know of anyone tossing one out, let us know! More broadly, I came away with an appreciation for eye-catching garden sculpture, like a metal dahlia that spins in the wind (though not all who left online reviews were happy). One of the garden tours had a night session, and that got me thinking about decorative lighting. A friend we visited on the way up had Japanese lanterns hanging from a tree, which was another look I liked, even if there are no lights in them.

– We will stop talking and finally finish (or at least do more of) the lavender fencing of the raised beds that we have envisioned. Prep work can be done in the fall (same as with back bed), and we can buy lavender in May (and move some that we have that needs a home). I’m hoping for a tall variety, like the one by the front door. Hopefully that will make the raised beds even more deer-proof. We could add an archway to the entrance of the raised beds, creating a nice transition to the room, but maybe we’ll wait til we see how we like the lavender wall.

A pergola in our yard?– Use old tomato cages, turned upside down and with the parts that go in the ground chopped off, as ways to stake flowers that tend to flop over. Actually, I bet you could use cages right-side up. And we certainly have some that have seen better days.

– I’m still thinking an island bed (on a berm?) in the front would be nice. It could echo the curves of the bed that hugs the front path and could be wide enough for one pass with the mower, and eliminate a lot of lawn. But that is a lower priority. I’d like to have more flowers and pizzazz in the backyard, which is also incredibly sunny. I’m probably more likely to connect two small beds along the driveway first.

– A pergola would be lovely. Imagine one covered with wisteria! The question is where to put it and how to deal with the slope of the yard. That might be one for a few years from now, when we decide how to expand the deck or how to add a patio.

Some other photos from the weekend:

metal dahlia
The metal dahlia (sorry, no video)
white dragon flowers
They called the white flowers dragon flowers
tall artemisia
I want some of this tall artemisia, variety unknown
Nice pattern on this homemade trellis. Looks easy to copy!
path that crosses at a water feature
a path!

High Inspiration

I finally made it to the High Line, a new park on the west side of Manhattan that uses an abandoned railway line. Loved it! Want to go back regularly. A second part will open next year, and much to my delight, there will be a third section. One day it could stretch from Gansevoort to 34th Street!  This park was an immediate hit, and even on a windy Tuesday afternoon, it was busy.

It uses lots of grasses, so it still looks good this time of year. It is inspiring me to use more grasses in our yard. Perhaps one section of just ornamental grasses?

Flowers in Burgundy

Are you surprised that we quickly found gardens during our vacation in France? Of course we also enjoyed the wine (and the bicycling)! But I also came away with a few ideas for the yard. And I’m gaining more appreciation for the idea of gardening for the foliage.

Like that burgundy foliage!
Some of this, please
What's my name?
Eye-catching foliage
Another nice foliage combination
This path to nowhere got my attention
Maybe a river that widens?
And of course some color
Borage, perhaps?
Cosmos and the vines
Some extra pop

I’ll save a few for later…

The Garden State

The New York Times has written an article on gardens in the Garden State. Of the five, I’ve only been to one (the one the author called the least interesting), and that was for a plant sale at the beginning of my gardening days. What I remember most is the pineapple sage plant we came home with that grew to shrub size and bloomed a fantastic red in the fall. Unfortunately, it was an annual.

To be honest, the article wasn’t that convincing, but I’ll still aim to get to Freylinghuysen and the New Jersey Botanical Garden this year.

In the meantime, my town’s garden tour is tomorrow. I like that it’s free! And not about magazine-ready gardens! Hope there’s something like this near you.

California Dreamin’

I’ve been slow in sharing some garden photos from a trip to LA. (Yes, some are taken with a Blackberry so not the sharpest.) I’m envious of the lemon tree growing over the wall at a friend’s house, and I loved the botanical garden in Pasadena. Both it and front-yard gardens in Venice Beach had some cool-looking succulents/desert plants– all things that are foreign to Zone 6b!

Imagine being able to pick a lemon fresh from the tree!
I could do something like this
Love this maroon!
Cool-colored desert plant in Pasadena
Along a street in Venice Beach
A garden of succulents
No idea what this fat plant is