Category Archives: Sample Stories

Hey! Who Threw Tomatoes at My Car??!!! – Mike McGrath

Former Editor of Organic Gardening magazine and current host of NPR’s “You Bet Your Garden!” radio show, Mike McGrath is as close as gardening has to a national celebrity. He’s also a very funny writer, whose unique gardening humor has graced every issue of GreenPrints since the Summer of 1998. That’s over 50 issues and counting!

Here: Enjoy the very first piece he wrote for us, way back in GreenPrints #34!

Hey! Who Threw Tomatoes
at My Car??!!!

One gardener’s report on Spring ’98.
By Mike McGrath
Illustrations by Mary T. Ey

splat

First, I am pleased to announce that I have planted my peas earlier this year than ever before and certainly earlier than anyone in my native Pennsylvania would consider even remotely sane. As always, this is not my fault. I was seduced—and, as I slam these words into my poor defenseless keyboard (if I do have to go to Hades when I become compost I know there will be a legion of abused typewriters and computer keyboards waiting to pay me back for all the sins I inflicted upon them on earth) it looks like I am also about to be abandoned by ‘ol Mother Nature, who herself appears to have been blackjacked and drug into an alley by this ‘El Nino’ guy. . . .

At first, I resisted as best I could. January was easy. Even a fool such as I knows that you can’t (OK—shouldn’t, but really shouldn’t) plant a garden—even lettuce and peas—in January in PA. But she was a tempting month, nonetheless—the hands-down warmest January ever in these parts. And, luckily, I was really busy in February. Still, we were smelling sweet springtime soil every time we went outside; I was even worried that the dwarf crabapple tree in the big raised bed in the middle of the driveway (it makes more sense than it sounds like; it kind of defines an area for us to park around) would blossom and then freeze—like the cherry trees in Washington, D.C. already had (blossomed, not froze [not yet, anyway]).

mcgrathquote1The spring bulbs were up—their greens sprouting and raising up their leaf mulch like floating plateaus in late January. I thought about covering them with more mulch. I thought about removing the mulch that was already there, as it sure seemed like we had somehow moved south a good two USDA zones. But I eventually did the smartest thing a gardener can do, which, of course if you’re me, is to do nothing at all.

But all was not perfect this mild winter. First, it just seemed wrong to have only had four days of winter—especially when we could still remember a few years back when we literally had more snow than we had room for (the result: a one-car wide ‘driveway’ flanked by twin 18-foot-high snowplow-created towers that the kids christened “Godzilla’s Castle” and played precariously on for hours at a pop). And second, I had come out one morning to find what appeared to be tomatoes or tomato sauce splattered on the back end of both cars parked in the driveway next to the aforementioned crabapple tree (which would have been disposed of years ago, but it just looks so spectacular for a week or so each spring, and it probably does help us line up our parking in its own odd little way).

singingbirds

Well, I was furious! The last time something like this happened was a good seven or eight years ago when we were foolish enough to endorse the wrong school board candidate and, of course, immediately had our house ‘egged’ in time-honored local political response. (When it’s ‘only’ a Presidential election, about 40% of the registered voters go to our neighborhood polling place—but when it’s a School Board Election, the turnout is more like 105%.)

Remembering what that egging did to our house paint (are eggs corrosive or something?), I washed the tomato stuff off the cars—but it was already sticking and hard and a real #@$%^&! to remove. A week later, it happened again! So now I’m thinking about sitting up all night on some upcoming evening to catch the vandals, something I would probably never do, but I am thinking about it. . .

Anyway, the last day of February is a Saturday. This is extremely dangerous in a warm winter. I have already, on the previous week-ends, cleaned up, gone through and organized all my seeds (I have a huge stash from my seven years at Organic Gardening), cleaned up my seed starting areas and supplies, made up a big batch of seed-starting mix, put fresh tubes in my big fluorescent seed-starting lights, and pretty much done everything except clean out the refrigerator (which Hemingway said you have to do before you can write a really good novel; don’t know if he started seeds. . .).

So on this impossibly warm Saturday—at the end of an impossibly warm week—I content myself with starting all my tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, broc, etc., and a whole bunch of sunflowers—I’m hoping to stage a real early spectacular sunflower show this year (plus, I got something like 50 packets of real pretty ornamental sunflower seeds, and. . .). But on Super-Sunny Sunday, I just can’t take it no more (or in the words of Popeye: “That’s all I can stands! I can’t stands no more!”)

I grab my seven year old, Max, who has been begging to help me do some work out in the garden, and we go out and plant two trellis (trelli?) worth of snow peas (it is now no longer February by one day—it is March 1—and now I figure I’m at least in the right month for pea planting, so we’re probably not talking grounds for involuntary commitment . . .), mix lettuces in two huge containers that I have filled with nice fresh potting mix, and overseed all the spinach that has survived the winter (quite nicely and with absolutely no help at all from me) with more of the same (spinach, that is—not no help).

We also try my new idea. The people who promote spring bulbs from the Netherlands always send out this super-cool box o’ bulbs in the fall to selected garden writers and such, and I got my beautiful box as always (it’s blue, octagonal, contains four really cool very odd-shaped smaller boxes nested inside, and inside each of those boxes are several bags, each containing a dozen or so bulbs of a specific species—all the way from pretty little croci to huge Narcissesseseseseses. eseses. eses.)

Well, when said box showed up last fall, I remembered that a couple of the front flower beds had been looking a little bulb-poor the past spring, but of course I had completely forgotten exactly where, in exactly which beds (all the foliage was long gone), there were pansies growing over top of where I would need to plant the new bulbs even if I did remember where these ‘holes’ were, and every time I had tried solving this annual problem in the past by using what I laughingly call my ‘memory’ (what was I talking about? Oh yeah. . .) I wound up spearing one (actually more like dozens) of the hundreds of bulbs that were already nicely in place and that had been doing quite well until that trowel arrived to disembowel them thank you very much. . . .

mcgrathquote2So Max and I went to check if we could plant them in the crabapple tree bed instead. Nope, no room in there for more bulbs. In fact, there was not enough room in there for the bulbs already there. It looked like a Japanese subway car had sprouted at rush hour. And while I’m taking in this somewhat sordid picture of sprouts on top of sprouts on top of sprouts I look over and see that the rear end of one of our cars is covered with what looks like hurled tomatoes or tomato sauce or pizza shakings from a cheeseless pie. And I am burnt up! Even the beautiful songs of all the birds in the crabapple tree overhead can’t calm me down! I am mad! No, I am fightin’ mad! Bring ‘em on! The creeps! The cowards! The swine! The vermin! In the words of the immortal Curly, “I’ll paste ‘em, I’ll pummel ‘em, I’ll moidalize ‘em!!!” Why I oughta—

**SPLAT**

And then I am wiping tomato-stuff off the edge of my glasses. And then I am looking up just in time to have another splat land dead center in my left lens (the glass lens, not my own personal one-of-a-kind, hard-to-replace one).

And it is then that I realize that no one has been throwing anything at the cars.

Normally, the snow and ice storms—and, I now realize, but honestly never did before, hungry birds—would strip all the faded little shriveling-up crabapples from the tree early in winter. But this year, those ‘leftovers’ have instead hung on and have now fermented—luring birds who like to party hearty to the top of the tree, where they have apparently been getting roaring drunk on nice warm days. Drunk and sloppy.

As I watch, one particularly tipsy birdie lurches and stumbles towards his (or maybe her) next fermented little apple, and I realize that—a good half the time—these inebriated avians probably miss ‘beaking’ their intended target cleanly and instead knock it out of the tree and—splat—onto the edge of one of the cars below.

The mystery of the tossed ‘tomatoes’ (I had wondered—enviously—where people were getting such nice red tomatoes in the middle of winter. . .) is solved!

Teenage vandals? Nope. Sloppy drunks? Yes, but sloppy drunks with wings (now there’s something you don’t see everyday, Chauncey. . .).

Sigh—at least I didn’t sit up all night waiting for the tomato throwers!

birddrop

Fruit of the Gods – Diana Wells

Contributing Editor Diana Wells has been in almost every issue since GreenPrints #3! Our British-born garden historian, Diana seamlessly weaves personal and horticultural history together in a way that’s both entertaining and instructive. Her prizewinning 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names is in its umpteenth printing (15th, last I knew).

I really didn’t know which of the over 70 pieces she’s written for GreenPrints to represent her here. Finally, I settled one about everyone’s favorite small treat, the . . .

strawbkey

Fruit of the Gods

Strawberries have long been treasured.
By Diana Wells
Illustrations by Linda Cook Devona

“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.” That is a remark said to have been made by a 17th century Dr. Boteler (or Butler) and quoted on both sides of the Atlantic ever since. And, of course, it’s about strawberries.

Except to the unfortunate few who are allergic to them, strawberries have always been a food of the Gods. Indeed, Virgil, in Metamorphoses, said they were eaten in the “Golden Age” when “men were content with food that grew without cultivation.” The strawberries that we eat today are not the same as the little wild berries that Virgil’s immortals collected and enjoyed. Those tiny sweet berries grew wild all over Europe and generally were picked form the woods rather than cultivated.

The botanical name Fragaria comes from the Latin fragrans, for the sweet smell of strawberry leaves, flowers, and the fruit itself. For those who grow strawberries, their fragrance on a warm summer evening is something you simply can’t find in a supermarket, however lush the berries look under their plastic wrap. The English name “strawberry” most likely doesn’t come from the straw often spread around the plants to protect them from damp—the name predates the practice. No, it derives from the old English name streawberige, for the way strawberries strew themselves, or spread, across the ground.

These days I don’t grow strawberries myself, but I do pick them whenever I can. Luckily, there are several farms near us that raise “U-Pick” berries, because I’d never willingly forgo the pleasure of picking my own. It’s not only the fragrance and the rustling leaves, and the excitement of finding the perfect berry. It’s also that nothing, nothing tastes as good as a sun-warmed strawberry popped into one’s mouth. Talk about a Golden Age—it’s right there in a hot field, right next to where I have parked my little car!

strawbdgbt

The strawberries I pick, and we all eat, are hybrids of Old World plant. When settlers came to America, they found much bigger berries than the little wild European ones. These European berries were called hautbois in French because they grew in “high woods.” (They shared the name with the oboe, a musical instrument that is a “high wood” because it reaches such high musical notes.)

The American berries were larger but less sweet than the wild European ones. When settlers sent plants, home, they were called “Virginia” strawberries. The real breakthrough for cultivated strawberries came when Louis XIV sent Ammedee Frezier to South America to spy on the Spanish regime and secretly make maps there. In Chile, Frezier found huge strawberries, which he described as being “as big as a hen’s egg,” and he brought plants back to France. These were hybridized with Virginia strawberries to make the ancestors of the hundreds of kinds we know now. Frezier himself had got his name from a family crest of strawberry flowers (Frezirs) on a blue background! Strawberries became a garden fruit, and King Louis himself ate so many that his doctor ordered him to stop. The great Carl Linnaeus ate them too, claiming that they controlled his gout!

Strawberries are amongst the “soft” fruits. Actually, what we think of as the fruit isn’t really the fruit at all. It’s a soft core onto which the fruit adheres. Those little hard-coated pips clinging onto the outside of the berry are the real frits (known as achenes). The juicy pulp is the equivalent of the core of a raspberry, which we discard.

Like all soft fruits, strawberries don’t keep or travel well. Readers of Little Women may remember the meal Jo cooks (on June 7th) to commemorate the death of their pet bird, Pip. It’s a dinner where everything goes wrong: The blancmange is lumpy; the cream is sour; she uses salt instead of sugar, and the strawberries are “deaconed.” Deaconed, far from meaning they were blessed, meant that they berries had been deceitfully sold with the good ones arranged on top to hide the rotten ones beneath—not a flattering reference to churchmen!

In a different religious context, we often see strawberries in paintings of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child. Sometimes strawberry vines are framing the picture, or they nestle in the grass in front of the stable. The three leaves of the strawberry represented the Trinity, and the heart-shaped red berries presaged the drops of Christ’s blood. For someone (like me) who doesn’t attend a church but think of picking strawberries as a religious experience, all this fits in very well.

At this time of year, “U” who don’t pick can usually find somewhere to get freshly grown local berries. It’s worthwhile because it is not even worth comparing fresh strawberries with those in the stores. They are practically a different fruit. If you only know the store-bought ones, you might wonder what all this fuss is about. Yes, you can put cream and sugar on them, but they are not food of the Gods.

Sadly, we can now eat commercial strawberries year-round, flown in from warmer climates. In the old days this wasn’t possible, so strawberries kept their divine reputation.

strawbspotThose of you who have read Reginald Arkell’s Old Herbaceous might recall Pinnegar, the gardener of the rather unsympathetic Mrs. Charteris. Secretly Pinnegar raises strawberries in a greenhouse to give his mistress a surprise. Then in spring she gives a tea party: “‘Strawberries!’ roared the General, ‘Strawberries in April! What will you be giving us next?’” Mrs. Charteris thinks she is seeing things. It is “as though the year had taken a giant’s stride forward, landing you suddenly in June.” But the miraculous bowl of berries is on the table, so Mrs. Charteris decides on the spot that well not, after all, “make a chanStrawberry Spotge” of gardener. Pinnegar remains with her until both of them grow old. “He would exasperate you,” says the dying Mrs. Charteris, “and then we would be so sweet you almost wanted to cry.”

So sweet you want to cry. That’s what I think about as kneel in a fragrant strawberry patch in June—and pick.

For a look at Diana Wells’s 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, click on the cover:

100flowers

Remedial Weeding – Becky Rupp

Becky Rupp first wrote for GreenPrints way back in Issue #2 (“Reading in the Garden,” a wonderful, wonderful 7-page justification of horticultural idleness). She didn’t become a regular Contributing Editor, though, until #58 (“Remedial Weeding,” a classic about using weeding to get over people who make you really, really angry). GP is privileged to feature her work: Becky’s superb writing is always a stunning combination of erudition, whimsy, insight, and wit—all rendered in a deceptively smooth, self-deprecating style. Thank you, Becky!

Here we have just one of my favorite Rupp essays . . .

Remedial Weeding

remedialweeding

Feeling stressed? Gardeners know the cure.
By Becky Rupp.
Illustration by Blanche Derby

Last week, while driving home from the library at four o’clock in the afternoon, I blocked the driveway of our local Dunkin’ Donuts restaurant. I didn’t mean to block the Dunkin’ Donuts restaurant; there was a panel truck in front of me and somewhere ahead of that a traffic light had turned red, leaving me stranded in front of a bubblegum-pink sign that said ENTRANCE.

This might have been all right—small-town Vermont is a reasonably laid-back environment; most of us can wait out a red light in relative tranquility—except for a woman in a gray Chevrolet who wanted to turn into the Dunkin’ Donuts now. She honked, and then honked again, louder and longer. I made apologetic faces, indicative of my inability to budge; and she rolled down her window, screamed unprintable names, and made finger gestures.

Ten seconds later the light changed.

She roared into the Dunkin’ Donuts. I went home and weeded the lettuce.

People! Sometimes the thing I like best about the garden is that there’s nobody else in it.

I have friends who, in emotional extremis, favor bubble baths, five-mile jogs, psychotherapists, or bottles of gin. I, however, have always favored weeding, solitary weeding. Gardens, along with vegetables and zinnias, dispense calm, comfort, and perspective. There’s something soothing about green and dirt; as you crawl about by yourself, pulling up invasive stuff in the cucumbers, the jagged disruptions of even the most dreadful days, begin to smooth themselves over. A garden exemplifies placid common sense. Give it a chance and it takes you outside yourself, reminding you that—for all your petty fretting—the planet is still spinning along.

There’s an unmistakably remedial aspect to weeding. It’s a cathartic activity. Yank up crabgrass, peppergrass, knotweed, and horsetail; tear out (cautiously, with gloves) the awful stuff that my field guide refers to as Horrible thistle; obliterate hawkweed, ragwort, and prickly lettuce.

Weed long enough and you’ll feel better. You’ll even start to come around on the people thing. Some people, after all, are your loved ones: your spouse, your children, your dearest friends, people without whom your life would be sad and dull, devoid of laughter, conversation, hugs, and shared peanut-butter toast. We need each other, and after an hour or so interacting with chickweed and dandelions, this begins to look once again like a positive proposition.

Which brings me back to the woman in the gray Chevrolet. I’ll doubtless never know what drove her to the point of shrieking at a perfect stranger inadvertently blocking the Donut lane. It could have been whining children, a delinquent babysitter, nasty neighbors, a surly husband, or a tyrannical boss. Her day could have been beset with tax collectors, broken pipes, and flat tires. She probably thought she needed a doughnut.

But I can tell you what she really needs.

She needs a garden.

To peek at Becky’s collection of curious-and-true stories aboutd common vegetables, click on the cover right here:

howcarrotswon

Sample Stories

Sample Stories

To read some wonderful sample stories, click on the current issue on our home page or on individual back issues in the Back Issues section of the store. Most of these have one or two great stories you can read right now!

GP 79 GP 81 GP 81

You can also read three stories from “The Weeder’s Reader,” the best-of-GreenPrints Bonus Issue sent FREE to all new subscribers. Just click on this cover and scroll down through the Table of Contents. You’ll be able to enjoy the warm “My New Year’s Garden,” the hilarious “Atheists on My Houseplants,” and the moving “Light Passes Through Me:”

Weeder's Reader

Mike McGrath

Former Editor of Organic Gardening magazine and current host of NPR’s “You Bet Your Garden!” radio show, Mike McGrath is as close as gardening has to a national celebrity. He’s also a very funny writer, whose unique gardening humor has graced every issue of GreenPrints since the Summer of 1998. That’s over 50 issues and counting!

Here: Enjoy the very first piece he wrote for us, way back in GreenPrints #34!

 

Hey! Who Threw Tomatoes
at My Car??!!!

 

One gardener’s report on Spring ’98.

By Mike McGrath

Illustrations by Mary T. Ey

 Splat

First, I am pleased to announce that I have planted my peas earlier this year than ever before and certainly earlier than anyone in my native Pennsylvania would consider even remotely sane.  As always, this is not my fault.  I was seduced—and, as I slam these words into my poor defenseless keyboard (if I do have to go to Hades when I become compost I know there will be a legion of abused typewriters and computer keyboards waiting to pay me back for all the sins I inflicted upon them on earth) it looks like I am also about to be abandoned by ‘ol Mother Nature, who herself appears to have been blackjacked and drug into an alley by this ‘El Nino’ guy. . . .

At first, I resisted as best I could.  January was easy.  Even a fool such as I knows that you can’t (OK—shouldn’t, but really shouldn’t) plant a garden—even lettuce and peas—in January in PA.  But she was a tempting month, nonetheless—the hands-down warmest January ever in these parts. And, luckily, I was really busy in February.  Still, we were smelling sweet springtime soil every time we went outside; I was even worried that the dwarf crabapple tree in the big raised bed in the middle of the driveway (it makes more sense than it sounds like; it kind of defines an area for us to park around) would blossom and then freeze—like the cherry trees in Washington, D.C. already had (blossomed, not froze [not yet, anyway]).

Do NothingThe spring bulbs were up—their greens sprouting and raising up their leaf mulch like floating plateaus in late January.  I thought about covering them with more mulch.  I thought about removing the mulch that was already there, as it sure seemed like we had somehow moved south a good two USDA zones.  But I eventually did the smartest thing a gardener can do, which, of course if you’re me, is to do nothing at all.

But all was not perfect this mild winter.  First, it just seemed wrong to have only had four days of winter—especially when we could still remember a few years back when we literally had more snow than we had room for (the result: a one-car wide ‘driveway’ flanked by twin 18-foot-high snowplow-created towers that the kids christened “Godzilla’s Castle” and played precariously on for hours at a pop).  And second, I had come out one morning to find what appeared to be tomatoes or tomato sauce splattered on the back end of both cars parked in the driveway next to the aforementioned crabapple tree (which would have been disposed of years ago, but it just looks so spectacular for a week or so each spring, and it probably does help us line up our parking in its own odd little way).
Singing Birds
Well, I was furious!  The last time something like this happened was a good seven or eight years ago when we were foolish enough to endorse the wrong school board candidate and, of course, immediately had our house ‘egged’ in time-honored local political response.  (When it’s ‘only’ a Presidential election, about 40% of the registered voters go to our neighborhood polling place—but when it’s a School Board Election, the turnout is more like 105%.)

Remembering what that egging did to our house paint  (are eggs corrosive or something?), I washed the tomato stuff off the cars—but it was already sticking and hard and a real #@$%^&! to remove. A week later, it happened again! So now I’m thinking about sitting up all night on some upcoming evening to catch the vandals, something I would probably never do, but I am thinking about it. . .

Anyway, the last day of February is a Saturday. This is extremely dangerous in a warm winter.  I have already, on the previous week-ends, cleaned up, gone through and organized all my seeds (I have a huge stash from my seven years at Organic Gardening), cleaned up my seed starting areas and supplies, made up a big batch of seed-starting mix,  put fresh tubes in my big fluorescent seed-starting lights, and pretty much done everything except clean out the refrigerator (which Hemingway said you have to do before you can write a really good novel; don’t know if he started seeds. . .).

So on this impossibly warm Saturday—at the end of an impossibly warm week—I content myself with starting all my tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, broc, etc., and a whole bunch of sunflowers—I’m hoping to stage a real early spectacular sunflower show this year (plus, I got something like 50 packets of real pretty ornamental sunflower seeds, and. . .).  But on Super-Sunny Sunday, I just can’t take it no more (or in the words of Popeye: “That’s all I can stands!  I can’t stands no more!”)

I grab my seven year old, Max, who has been begging to help me do some work out in the garden, and we go out and plant two trellis (trelli?) worth of snow peas (it is now no longer February  by one day—it is March 1—and now I figure I’m at least in the right month for pea planting, so we’re probably not talking grounds for involuntary commitment . . .), mix lettuces in two huge containers that I have filled with nice fresh potting mix, and overseed all the spinach that has survived the winter (quite nicely and with absolutely no help at all from me) with more of the same (spinach, that is—not no help).

We also try my new idea.  The people who promote spring bulbs from the Netherlands always send out this super-cool box o’ bulbs in the fall to selected garden writers and such, and I got my beautiful box as always (it’s blue, octagonal, contains four really cool very odd-shaped smaller boxes nested inside, and inside each of those boxes are several bags, each containing a dozen or so bulbs of a specific species—all the way from pretty little croci to huge Narcissesseseseseses. eseses. eses.)

Well, when said box showed up last fall, I  remembered that a couple of the front flower beds had been looking a little bulb-poor the past spring, but of course I had completely forgotten exactly where, in exactly which beds (all the foliage was long gone), there were pansies growing over top of where I would need to plant the new bulbs even if I did remember where these ‘holes’ were, and every time I had tried solving this annual problem in the past by using what I laughingly call my ‘memory’ (what was I talking about?  Oh yeah. . .) I wound up spearing one (actually more like dozens) of the hundreds of bulbs that were already nicely in place and that had been doing quite well until that trowel arrived to disembowel them thank you very much. . . .

I am Mad quoteSo Max and I went to check if we could plant them in the crabapple tree bed instead. Nope, no room in there for more bulbs.  In fact, there was not enough room in there for the bulbs already there.  It looked like a Japanese subway car had sprouted at rush hour. And while I’m taking in this somewhat sordid picture of sprouts on top of sprouts on top of sprouts  I look over and see that the rear end of one of our cars is covered with what looks like hurled tomatoes or tomato sauce or pizza shakings from a cheeseless pie.  And I am burnt up!  Even the beautiful songs of all the birds in the crabapple tree overhead can’t calm me down!  I am mad!  No, I am fightin’ mad! Bring ‘em on!  The creeps!  The cowards! The swine! The vermin!  In the words of the immortal Curly, “I’ll paste ‘em, I’ll pummel ‘em, I’ll moidalize ‘em!!!”  Why I oughta—

**SPLAT**

And then I am wiping tomato-stuff off the edge of my glasses. And then I am looking up just in time to have another splat land dead center in my left lens (the glass lens, not my own personal one-of-a-kind, hard-to-replace one).

And it is then that I realize that no one has been throwing anything at the cars.

Normally, the snow and ice storms—and, I now realize, but honestly never did before, hungry birds—would strip all the faded little shriveling-up crabapples from the tree early in winter. But this year, those ‘leftovers’ have instead hung on and have now fermented—luring birds who like to party hearty to the top of the tree, where they have apparently been getting roaring drunk on nice warm days. Drunk and sloppy.

As I watch, one particularly tipsy birdie lurches and stumbles towards his (or maybe her) next fermented little apple, and I realize that—a good half the time—these inebriated avians probably miss ‘beaking’ their intended target cleanly and instead knock it out of the tree and—splat—onto the edge of one of the cars below.

The mystery of the tossed ‘tomatoes’ (I had wondered—enviously—where people were getting such nice red tomatoes in the middle of winter. . .) is solved!

Teenage vandals? Nope. Sloppy drunks? Yes, but sloppy drunks with wings (now there’s something you don’t see everyday, Chauncey. . .).

Sigh—at least I didn’t sit up all night waiting for the tomato throwers! 

 Bird Drops . . .

 

Diana Wells

Contributing Editor Diana Wells has been in almost every issue since GreenPrints #3! Our British-born garden historian, Diana seamlessly weaves personal and horticultural history together in a way that’s both entertaining and instructive. Her prizewinning 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names is in its umpteenth printing (15th, last I knew).

I really didn’t know which of the over 70 pieces she’s written for GreenPrints to represent her here. Finally, I settled one about everyone’s favorite small treat, the . . .

Strawberries Art

Fruit of the Gods

Strawberries have long been treasured.

By Diana Wells

Illustrations by Linda Cook Devona

 

“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.” That is a remark said to have been made by a 17th century Dr. Boteler (or Butler) and quoted on both sides of the Atlantic ever since. And, of course, it’s about strawberries.

Except to the unfortunate few who are allergic to them, strawberries have always been a food of the Gods. Indeed, Virgil, in Metamorphoses, said they were eaten in the “Golden Age” when “men were content with food that grew without cultivation.” The strawberries that we eat today are not the same as the little wild berries that Virgil’s immortals collected and enjoyed. Those tiny sweet berries grew wild all over Europe and generally were picked form the woods rather than cultivated.

The botanical name Fragaria comes from the Latin fragrans, for the sweet smell of strawberry leaves, flowers, and the fruit itself. For those who grow strawberries, their fragrance on a warm summer evening is something you simply can’t find in a supermarket, however lush the berries look under their plastic wrap. The English name “strawberry” most likely doesn’t come from the straw often spread around the plants to protect them from damp—the name predates the practice. No, it derives from the old English name streawberige, for the way strawberries strew themselves, or spread, across the ground.

These days I don’t grow strawberries myself, but I do pick them whenever I can. Luckily, there are several farms near us that raise “U-Pick” berries, because I’d never willingly forgo the pleasure of picking my own. It’s not only the fragrance and the rustling leaves, and the excitement of finding the perfect berry. It’s also that nothing, nothing tastes as good as a sun-warmed strawberry popped into one’s mouth. Talk about a Golden Age—it’s right there in a hot field, right next to where I have parked my little car!

Strawberries

The strawberries I pick, and we all eat, are hybrids of Old World plant. When settlers came to America, they found much bigger berries than the little wild European ones. These European berries were called hautbois in French because they grew in “high woods.” (They shared the name with the oboe, a musical instrument that is a “high wood” because it reaches such high musical notes.)

The American berries were larger but less sweet than the wild European ones. When settlers sent plants, home, they were called “Virginia” strawberries. The real breakthrough for cultivated strawberries came when  Louis XIV sent Ammedee Frezier to South America to spy on the Spanish regime and secretly make maps there. In Chile, Frezier found huge strawberries, which he described as being “as big as a hen’s egg,” and he brought plants back to France. These were hybridized with Virginia strawberries to make the ancestors of the hundreds of kinds we know now. Frezier himself had got his name from a family crest of strawberry flowers (Frezirs) on a blue background! Strawberries became a garden fruit, and King Louis himself ate so many that his doctor ordered him to stop. The great Carl Linnaeus ate them too, claiming that they controlled his gout!

Strawberries are amongst the “soft” fruits. Actually, what we think of as the fruit isn’t really the fruit at all. It’s a soft core onto which the fruit adheres. Those little hard-coated pips clinging onto the outside of the berry are the real frits (known as achenes). The juicy pulp is the equivalent of the core of a raspberry, which we discard.

Like all soft fruits, strawberries don’t keep or travel well. Readers of Little Women may remember the meal Jo cooks (on June 7th) to commemorate the death of their pet bird, Pip. It’s a dinner where everything goes wrong: The blancmange is lumpy; the cream is sour; she uses salt instead of sugar, and the strawberries are “deaconed.” Deaconed, far from meaning they were blessed, meant that they berries had been deceitfully sold with the good ones arranged on top to hide the rotten ones beneath—not a flattering reference to churchmen!

In a different religious context, we often see strawberries in paintings of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child. Sometimes strawberry vines are framing the picture, or they nestle in the grass in front of the stable. The three leaves of the strawberry represented the Trinity, and the heart-shaped red berries presaged the drops of Christ’s blood. For someone (like me) who doesn’t attend a church but think of picking strawberries as a religious experience, all this fits in very well.

At this time of year, “U” who don’t pick can usually find somewhere to get freshly grown local berries. It’s worthwhile because it  is not even worth comparing fresh strawberries with those in the stores. They are practically a different fruit. If you only know the store-bought ones, you might wonder what all this fuss is about. Yes, you can put cream and sugar on them, but they are not food of the Gods.

Sadly, we can now eat commercial strawberries year-round, flown in from warmer climates. In the old days this wasn’t possible, so strawberries kept their divine reputation.

Those of you who have read Reginald Arkell’s Old Herbaceous might recall Pinnegar, the gardener of the rather unsympathetic Mrs. Charteris. Secretly Pinnegar raises strawberries in a greenhouse to give his mistress a surprise. Then in spring she gives a tea party: “‘Strawberries!’ roared the General, ‘Strawberries in April! What will you be giving us next?’” Mrs. Charteris thinks she is seeing things. It is “as though the year had taken a giant’s stride forward, landing you suddenly in June.” But the miraculous bowl of berries is on the table, so Mrs. Charteris decides on the spot that well not, after all, “make a chanStrawberry Spotge” of gardener. Pinnegar remains with her until both of them grow old. “He would exasperate you,” says the dying Mrs. Charteris, “and then we would be so sweet you almost wanted to cry.”

So sweet you want to cry. That’s what I think about as kneel in a fragrant strawberry patch in June—and pick.

 

 

 

For a look at Diana Wells’s 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names,
click on the cover:

100 Flowers

 

Becky Rupp

Becky Rupp first wrote for GreenPrints way back in Issue #2 (“Reading in the Garden,” a wonderful, wonderful 7-page justification of horticultural idleness). She didn’t become a regular Contributing Editor, though, until #58 (“Remedial Weeding,” a classic about using weeding to get over people who make you really, really angry). GP is privileged to feature her work: Becky’s superb writing is always a stunning combination of erudition, whimsy, insight, and wit—all rendered in a deceptively smooth, self-deprecating style. Thank you, Becky!

Here we have just one of my favorite Rupp essays . . .

 

Remedial Weeding

Remedial Weeding

 

Feeling stressed? Gardeners know the cure.
By Becky Rupp.
Illustration by Blanche Derby

Last week, while driving home from the library at four o’clock in the afternoon, I blocked the driveway of our local Dunkin’ Donuts restaurant. I didn’t mean to block the Dunkin’ Donuts restaurant; there was a panel truck in front of me and somewhere ahead of that a traffic light had turned red, leaving me stranded in front of a bubblegum-pink sign that said ENTRANCE.

This might have been all right—small-town Vermont is a reasonably laid-back environment; most of us can wait out a red light in relative tranquility—except for a woman in a gray Chevrolet who wanted to turn into the Dunkin’ Donuts now. She honked, and then honked again, louder and longer. I made apologetic faces, indicative of my inability to budge; and she rolled down her window, screamed unprintable names, and made finger gestures.

Ten seconds later the light changed.

She roared into the Dunkin’ Donuts. I went home and weeded the lettuce.

People! Sometimes the thing I like best about the garden is that there’s nobody else in it.

I have friends who, in emotional extremis, favor bubble baths, five-mile jogs, psychotherapists, or bottles of gin. I, however, have always favored weeding, solitary weeding. Gardens, along with vegetables and zinnias, dispense calm, comfort, and perspective. There’s something soothing about green and dirt; as you crawl about by yourself, pulling up invasive stuff in the cucumbers, the jagged disruptions of even the most dreadful days, begin to smooth themselves over. A garden exemplifies placid common sense. Give it a chance and it takes you outside yourself, reminding you that—for all your petty fretting—the planet is still spinning along.

There’s an unmistakably remedial aspect to weeding. It’s a cathartic activity. Yank up crabgrass, peppergrass, knotweed, and horsetail; tear out (cautiously, with gloves) the awful stuff that my field guide refers to as Horrible thistle; obliterate hawkweed, ragwort, and prickly lettuce.

Weed long enough and you’ll feel better. You’ll even start to come around on the people thing. Some people, after all, are your loved ones: your spouse, your children, your dearest friends, people without whom your life would be sad and dull, devoid of laughter, conversation, hugs, and shared peanut-butter toast. We need each other, and after an hour or so interacting with chickweed and dandelions, this begins to look once again like a positive proposition.

Which brings me back to the woman in the gray Chevrolet. I’ll doubtless never know what drove her to the point of shrieking at a perfect stranger inadvertently blocking the Donut lane. It could have been whining children, a delinquent babysitter, nasty neighbors, a surly husband, or a tyrannical boss. Her day could have been beset with tax collectors, broken pipes, and flat tires. She probably thought she needed a doughnut.

But I can tell you what she really needs.

She needs a garden.

To peek at Becky’s collection of curious-and-true stories aboutd common vegetables, click on the cover right here:

How Carrots Won