Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tips for January Gardening in the Deep South

Don’t chuckle and laugh at the title…Gardening in January? Yes sir! Probably the best time to plant large shrubs and trees and for pruning evergreens and summer-flowering shrubs, but there is much more!

I have come to be so thankful for January. The stillness, serenity, and graceful beauty of winter took some maturity on my part to realize. A time for everything…To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…this Ecclesiastical axiom boasts so much truth…especially for gardening.

After the fullness of Christmas, the Halcyon Days of winter are just what the garden and gardener need. Study the branch structure of trees (pecans, birches, cherries, oaks, and beech to name a few) that are barren during this season. The harmony of gray bark and pale blue sky, sharpened with shards of green from rye, fescue, or moss are just marvelous. Take notes of these colors and then reflect on them later in the year…I’m always so amazed by the ever-changing seasonal palette.

Prune, clean, take inventory of tools, and plan your garden additions during this time. Learn the bones of your garden…you can see them very clearly now in the Deep South. Ask yourself… Does that tree need limbing up a bit? Should I move that clump of this or that? Would a hedge or border be a good definition for that bed? These and many more can be handled during this month.

Here’s a tip list of some gardening chores for January:

  • Prune Crepe Myrtles…DON’T CREPE MURDER!!!!!!!!! Notice the word PRUNE (to snip: cultivate, tend, and cut back the growth of; dress the plants in the garden). Snip off the spent seedpods…that’s about all you need to do. You can remove criss-crossing branches, inward growing branches and suckers, but DO NOT chain saw these trees in half or to the ground. If your tree is too large for the spot, you may have the wrong specimen or even plant choice. Just cut them back by a fourth at the very most. These trees are native throughout the Deep South and bloom perennially ever year in their habitats. Birds and wind naturally trim these trees in the wild so take a cue from nature and do the same.
  • Trim evergreens like boxwood and holly. Selectively sculpt and shape your shrubs – using their natural shape as your guide. American boxwoods are naturally egg shaped, so keep that shape in mind. Japanese and Korean box make good hedges but don’t scalp them. Hollies, like ‘Mary Nell’ and ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ are naturally pyramidal, so keep them that way. Unless you are bent and determined on shaping your shrubs into poodles, dolphins, and aircraft, Heaven forbid, follow the natural form of the plant.

  • Liriope can be cut back now as well…don’t wait too late or you’ll cut this year’s foliage off…let Valentine’s Day be your cutoff date for Winter pruning. (Evergreen Giant should NOT be touched…just fertilize in early spring.)
  • Stick to the May Rule…you’ll be quite successful with pruning if you stick to said rule! The May Rule…if you learn nothing else about pruning, remember the May Rule. If the shrub blooms BEFORE May, then prune the plant immediately after (or while it’s blooming to bring the blossoms inside for an arrangement) the shrub has bloomed. This bids well for azaleas, Spring blooming spireas, forsythia, camellias and sassanquas, quince, dogwood, red bud, Japanese magnolia, tea olive, winter daphne, English dogwood, and other “blooms before May” shrubs.

    If the shrub blooms AFTER May, prune the plant during dormancy or winter time. This goes for hydrangeas (except Oak Leaf – prune immediately after blooming or during for arrangements), crape myrtles, vitex, roses, althea, grapes (coldest day of the year), Confederate rose, pyrancantha, liriope and small fruit trees.

    For Evergreens (hollies, boxwood, conifers, ligustrum...etc), think Christmas decoration…cut them in December and use them for your Holiday décor! January and February and just fine as well. You want to shape the “bones” of your garden during winter so that the new flush of growth stems from your Winter pruning technique thus keeping your shape…top off any stray branches or “wild hairs” that may occur in spring and early summer.

    If you prune your garden correctly, it will reward you with bountiful blooms at appropriate times!

  • Plant bare root trees like fruit and nut trees as well as balled and burlapped shrubs. Winter is a great time to plant these specimens before the heat and stress of heat kick in.

  • Stone work…if you plan to lay some stone or stack some stone walls, this is a great time. Define your beds with cobbles or a stacked stone wall for added detail and crisp edges. Since you are “dry stacking” or not using mortar, the cold of January will not affect the mortar, cement, etc. Heavy pieces, like 2” thick material, can be lain in sand or crushed stone this time of year as well. Lay the pieces in a “butt joint” or side by side fashion for a crisp and clean look. Dwarf mondo and sod can be lain in the cracks to add a touch of green or texture to the stonework as well.

  • Last but not least, mulch your beds…put them to bed. Cover them with a neat blanket of straw, mulch, or leaf matter after cleaning and trimming. A neatly kept bed with fresh mulch can be just as delightful as a riot of color and blooms.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Farmer’s Potato and Turnip au Gratin


*Cook’s note: I have also done this doubled into two pans and with just Turnips…its fantastic either way!

* 1 cup heavy cream
* 1 Cup Half and Half
* 2 Tablespoons of minced Garlic
* 1 Teaspoon of Paprika
* 2 heavy shakes of Nature’s seasoning…about 1 ½ Tablespoons
* Pinch of Kosher salt
* Pinch of Ground pepper (or a mix of white, black and red)
* 2 sticks of butter… ½ stick diced into cubes for layers and ½ , plus extra for baking dish (I used a 9x13 Baking dish), and another stick for the Panko or breadcrumbs.
* About a pound of turnips, peeled and sliced very thin (use a mandolin…its fun and makes it so pretty!)
* About a pound of Yukon gold potatoes
* ½ cup grated Parmesan
* ½ Cup of sharp White Cheddar Cheese
* ½ Cup of Grated mozzarella
* 3 cups of Panko or crushed crackers…multigrain, ritz, etc.


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pour the cream, half and half, garlic, paprika, and nature’s seasoning in a heavy bottomed saucepan and season it with the salt. Taste, taste, taste…cream is naturally sweet so salt to your liking. Remember the Parm and other cheeses are a bit salty too. Bring the cream to a boil, stirring along the way. Once boiling, turn off the heat and Let the mixture steep for about 15 to 20 minutes.

Butter your baking dish and layer in about a 1/3 of the sliced turnips And potatoes. Sprinkle about a 1/3 of the grated cheeses over the turnips and dot with cubes of the diced butter pour 1/3 of the cream over the turnips and potatoes and Repeat for the next 2 layers…three total. Use up all the ingredients and grate up more cheese if needed.

Cover the dish with foil, place on a baking sheet… bake in the preheated oven for about 35 to 40 minutes. Take the dish from the oven and Remove the foil. Spread about 3 cups of Panko (Japanese bread crumbs…they’re really fine and add that crunch effect as well as dress up the dish.) Pour the other stick of butter, now melted, over the Panko and bake for another 20 minutes, until lightly golden to golden brown – however you prefer. You should be able to slide a fork in and out of the middle of the dish to know it’s done.

Now here’s the hardest part…DON”T dig right in! let it rest for about ten-ish minutes For easier serving…It cuts easier and makes a beautiful presentation. Serve with a sprig of rosemary if you care to garnish.

Now how’s that for turnips, eh?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Monsieur Faison et la célébration de Noël

My annual Christmas party was a fun time to gussy up the manse - decking the halls (boughs of holly literally used), donning fun apparel (festive pants are de rigueur), and celebrating the season with dear friends (silver and gold, new and old!).

When having more folks over than my dining room can seat, I love to serve from the dining room table and let my guests land wherever they can…and speaking of landing, my friend, M. Faison (French for pheasant) landed himself front and center as a part of my holiday décor.

Those that know me know I love birds - my house is sometimes referred to as “The Aviary.” Lee Jofa’s “Tree of Life” on my windows, antique prints and watercolors scattered about, and oils, sconces, and even a bell pull are adorned with fine, feathered friends. (The three “B’s” in my scheme are birds, boats, and bovines…the latter two shall have separate posts to come.) I digress…back to M. Faison and Christmas

This Christmas season, M. Faison was nested within the centerpiece on my dining room console. I love the woodland feel of birds, so I complemented the fowl and couple antlers tucked in with the game fowl felt apropos. As for the nest proper, an arrangement of holly, magnolia, cypress, and ginger proved to be a delightful spot for the pheasant. Little tendrils of ‘Irene’ Rosemary dangle from the edges adding a bit of scent. River Birch and Yoshino Cherry branches offer height and drama and are beautiful arranged on their own!

Since the bird arrangement was a statement on its own, low key yet still elegant was needed for the dining table centerpiece. One of my favorite urns (urns, pots, julep cups…start a collection and store an arsenal of containers for your arrangements throughout the year) is actually the base of a mini conservatory. I removed to cathedral-esque glass top, mounded moss and Granny Smith apples, and my centerpiece was set…I love the contrast of the two arrangements as well as the complement between the two…fresh, natural, organic and textural.

One element always leads to another…the apples led to a garnish with pomegranates (shock) for the ham. The time-honored colors of the natural components lent my décor a jovial feel for the party and season. Red and green are synonymous with Christmas and rightly so; for evergreens are putting forth their red berries…your natural scheme for the Holidays!

Since I love a twist on tradition, a color I used heavily this year was this chartreuse/ yellow green of a Chinese holly I found at an old farm house coming home from Hawkinsville. The red berries and holly leaf shape gave the traditional nod, but this variegated cultivar of holly just popped against the deep green of ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ magnolia, cypress, and pine. I carried this flora specimen throughout the house, thus giving some continuity to my arrangements and decoration scheme.

The party was a blast and the preparation was too. There is nothing like opening your home to friends, family, and loved ones, sharing your table, and making the Season bright. From this bird’s nest to yours, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What an honor!

So, in the design world, there a rock stars that influence, inspire, and ignite the passions of young designers like me. One of those is the amazingly talented Bobby McAlpine. His architecture firm in Montgomery is a phenomenal group – “an eclectic family of professionals” - formed from talented folks with projects all across the Deep South and international renown. Luckily, there office is across the street from my shop, so I was able to hand deliver the arrangement to their atelier – a treat in and of itself to visit!

One of Bobby’s many talents is furniture design henceforth a line for MacRae Designs... another major sway of fantastic design ideas and products. MacRae asked me if I would construct a Christmas present for Bobby, and an arrangement of Southern classics with a modern twist would be totally apropos! Just what comes to mind when thinking about McAlpine style!

Being two Southern gents from rural backgrounds gives us an affinity; so, I channeled the classic more traditional side of my design thinking (which is usually on the forefront) and harnessed the reverence and awe I have for modernity in Bobby’s design realm. Archetypal greenery, fabulously lush flowers, a modern container, and lots of texture came to mind. My creative juices were flowing and the process was initiated!

I love terrariums…mini-gardens and ecosystems…thus the basis of their appeal. A terrarium base was my foundation and I lined it with Chinese striped river rocks (be sure you have thick glass for this type of arrangement). The rocks gave me a “frog” or underpinning to build my arrangement upon.

A mound of magnolia…the awe I have for simplicity was nearly satisfied with this stage of the game, but I knew I could totally create a forest like arrangement and the magnolia was my green cornerstone. Arborvitae and pine created contrast and texture as well as smell…I think all arrangements should be totally sensual thus engaging each sense with delight.

Amaryllis, hydrangea, and orchids…traditional, luscious, and exotic respectively – what a fun mix! My forest of flowers was taking shape literally with vertical accents, mounds of florets, and sprays of chartreuse that just popped against the deep evergreens beneath. A few sticks to add a nod to winter and a touch of drama were positioned and some pine cones nestled into the pine boughs and magnolia brought out the earth tones and furthered the textural element.

All these components were juxtapositoned with that clear glass and what a complement! Take a few branches and stems, a cool container, and a dose of creativity…combine them all and construct your own “classic meets mod” Christmas arrangement. I had an absolute blast making this arrangement and cannot thank MacRae enough for the opportunity. I took the leftover buds and arranged them in my favorite julep cup – a little memento for JTF III!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Cast Iron...Your Armored Tank in the Kitchen

The quintessential cookware for centuries…cast iron. Give me some cast iron, a good knife, and I can cook. Bake, fry, sauté, roast, sear, stew, and simmer…it can all be done with cast iron skillets, fryers, and pots.

For a housewarming gift, Mimi (my grandmother) gave me a treasure – her flat iron skillet. I toast pound cake and bread with it, roast pecans, bake biscuits and cookies, practically using this piece daily…if not multiple time daily. Since it was hers, it came perfectly seasoned and revving up ready to go! Mrs. Mary (my “brown sugar” grandmother figure) swears by them and any good cook worth their butter has at least one…well seasoned and black.

These vessels of culinary jubilee are not only noteworthy in functionality but also for their classic position in Southern Kitchens. Part of that position is the major effectiveness of iron. Like copper and stainless steel, this metal is phenomenal in the kitchen. The other component to their success – seasoning.

A well seasoned skillet can be a cook’s best tool. Seasoning does take some time but is easily accomplished. Some stores carry “already seasoned” cast iron pieces and those can be good starters.

Tips on seasoning…
  • Crisco, lard, and oil are the best for seasoning your skillets and pots.
  • Wipe down every inch of the iron ware with the Crisco or lard.
  • Place some foil on the bottom to catch any “drippin’s.”
  • Situate your skillet upside down in a 350-400 degree oven for about an hour or so.
  • Turn the pot back to “right side up” and repeat the process.
I leave the cookware in the oven until cool and will even repeat the process over a couple days. This helps burn off any metallic taste or residue. Click here for more details.

Cooking with the pieces also adds seasoning…Oil for temperature and butter for taste…a cardinal rule for cooking. Cornbread is a great stand by for your skillet repertoire. Some of the best steaks you’ll ever eat have been and will be prepared and served from your cast iron. Pineapple upside down cake and cobblers are excellent in these skillets. And of course - fried chicken.

Check out flea markets, estate sales, and antique shops for cast iron…I found one of my favorite pieces of my collection in an antique shop at home…she’s a beauty! Expect to pay a bit for a good old piece but an investment nonetheless. If your cast iron has a French accent then it’s called Le Cruset! Add some cast iron to your cookware collection and get to cookin’!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Let’s Plan a Party

So my annual Christmas Party is this weekend and I’ve got to somehow pull my house, my table, and my décor together let alone myself! All within the midst of a helter skelter work week! I keep reminding myself of a fun little saying…what comes before Part B? Part A!!

I wanted to put together a little checklist (for my sanity at least) of what to do the week/day/whatever time I have before the party so I’m not pulling my hair out the day of the event and so I can (and will) enjoy my celebration…the Part B’s before the Part A!

* Clean up your nest before you feather it. No one loves to fluff and decorate more than I do, but don’t decorate a dirty nest! Wipe down your mantel, clean your tables, wash your dishes and serving pieces, wash and iron your linens, polish any silver, dust, sweep, mop, and so on and so forth. You can burn a nice candle, but the wafting scent of Pinesol and a clean house are just as wonderful as any scented candle!

* One thing I do that is a huge help is delegate. I conquer the main course, like the meat and bread, and let my friends bring on the sides and desserts. Yeah, it may be amazing to do it all yourself, but I’m all about sharing the load with some friends. This goes for the booze as well. A fully stocked bar can be expensive and time consuming…tell your friends to BYOB and check that one off the list as well…ps…I always designate a “bartender” friend to check drinks, mix drinks, and keep any eye out on supplies.

* Plan the menu in advance and be flexible. I love to serve a ham with biscuits or pork tenderloin with rolls with an array of mustards, relishes, jams, and jellies to complement. Your guests can make sandwiches (pick up items are so easy and don’t require forks, spoons, knifes, etc.) and dress them with your smorgasbord of condiments. If the grocery store is out of ham, then go with the pork tenderloins or vice versa…just be flexible and roll with it…it’s your party and you should have fun, too!

* Don’t overdo it…set realistic goals. Sure, I’d love to have everything so fabulous that it’s just unreal, but I honestly am completely satisfied with being a happy host for happy guests. Though en flambé Baked Alaska would be great for dessert, maybe stick to a classic that you know will turn out just right. “Mastering the art of French cooking” in its entirety may be overwhelming whereas one simply elegant meal would suffice.

* Let your greenery and flowers be a fun part of the prep and party. I love to use “planted compositions” like hydrangea, maidenhair fern, and ivy as floral arrangements…they last longer than cut flowers and can be planted in the garden after the party. If you’re using floral stems for arrangements, use a long lasting flower like lilies or roses en masse so that the mass makes the statement on its own and is easy to arrange. Long lasting greenery, like ginger, rosemary, evergreens, and some ferns make a great statement in simplicity or as a tonal composition. Plant a centerpiece with what’s in season and dress your home, like you would yourself, for said season.

* Wardrobe…plan your outfit in advance. Have your ensemble dry-cleaned, washed or ironed days in advance so you are not ironing your shirt in your under-drawers while the guests are arriving! Set out your outfit and allow yourself plenty of time to get ready.

* Lighting…everyone looks so good in candlelight! Lamp lights, sconces, and low overhead, like a dimmed chandelier, are great sources. Burn a fire in the fireplace and light candles for ambiance. I’m not saying you must light up your whole house with candles, but accent your serving piece or table or entry way with some candles to set a festive mood…not create a séance.

* Music at a party is like salt and pepper…it’s to taste. A small gathering can afford some soft music and large group may get a dance party started. I like modern twists on classics, like Bebo Norman’s version of “What Child is This” or Michael Buble’s “Let It Snow” album. Softly playing, music could fill up a void in conversations and help carry your ambiance through the evening. A crowd of folks will get noisy, so let the music aid your event rather than dominate it.

* Bottom line, have fun! I truly believe being an excellent host or the hostess with the “mostess” should come natural, be enjoyable, and come from your heart. Phoebe Howard, one of my absolute favorite designers, has a great saying…”You should always be the best decoration in your own house.” I like her tips as well…

I’ll share photos of the décor, food, and folks, so stay tuned. Fun parties are always conglomerations of all things this Farmer loves…good food, beautiful flowers, and great friends!

China is Provista by Man-hu
Sold at my store, Maison et Jardin in Old Cloverdale district, Montgomery, AL

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Farmer’s Vegetable Soup…from garden, to pot, to table!

Whether I have just picked them from the garden or opened a can I’ve “put up” from the summer, vegetables are classic and versatile. This vegetable soup is so quick and easy that I even like to jar it up and share with friends or store for a rainy day. Well, it rained and rained today and a bowl of this soup was calling my name. I had some bread from the Mennonite bakery and my meal was set.

Like any good soup, you have to have a good base. Since I had chicken breasts and not a whole hen, I made a quick stock. I usually make my own stock with a whole hen, seasoning, and root vegetables, but today I used a short cut.

Quick Stock…great base for soups, stews, and gumbo

* 8 cups of water
* 8 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
* 1 can of Cream of Chicken soup…you’ll need another later on.
* 1 medium size onion – diced
* Two stalks of celery finely chopped
* 1 package of chicken bouillon seasoning (I use Goya)
* A heaping dash (tablespoon) of Nature’s Seasoning

Bring the water to a boil and add everything but the chicken. Reduce the heat and simmer for a few minutes…add the chicken. Once the chicken is cooked, I reserved half of the meat (about four breasts) for some chicken salad. I love to make several meals from one starter or base. And that’s my quick chicken stock.

For the rest of the soup, you’ll need…

* Two jars of canned tomatoes or six medium vine ripened
* One can of cream of chicken soup
* Two cups of okra…frozen or fresh
* A cup and a half of lima beans from the freezer or green beans work well too.
* A heaping cup of egg noodles
* V8 juice for extra liquid if needed

Add the above ingredients except the noodles to the chicken and stock and bring to a boil. You may have to whisk the cream of Chicken to break it up or use a slotted spoon.

Reduce heat and let the soup simmer for about ten minutes. Add the egg noodles and cook them until done. If you are running low on liquid, use some V8 or tomato juice.

Soup’s on, Ya’ll! Serve a bowl with good toast, cornbread, crackers or grilled cheese.

As stated, this soup is so easy and quite delicious. I actually like it once it’s sat for a bit…the longer it sits, the more the flavors steep and concentrate… one of those “better the next day” recipes.

Follow glass jar sanitation instructions on the package of Mason or other glass jars…this soup cans very well and is a great present any time of the year. Tie a ribbon around the jar and share with friends and family…a mug or bowl of this soup is a marvelous treat from your garden and kitchen to there’s!

Sneak peak of tomorrow's post....the Farmer plans a tips and ideas!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Tea tips if you are out and about...

This Farmer’s tea is my favorite “comfort drink” so I strive to have plenty of to-go cups a la mon maison! But gallivanting all over the South does prohibit me from permanently carrying a glass of my Southern elixir. Here are some tips if you’re out and about…

On the Road

Chick-fil-A…best quality Tea on the road and in general as well.

Sonic…the ice and lime options all the way.

Zaxby’s…again, it’s the ice!

McDonalds…pretty sweet so I like to cut it with lemon and some unsweet mixed.

Restaurants and such...

Mellow Mushroom…just good tea and good size to-go cups

Zoe’s…they have great, big plastic to-go cups…always a plus!

La Madeline’s…oh so good! A fantastic mix of teas!

Mama G’s…something about crushed ice and those cups!

On the home front...

S&S Cafeteria…a Middle Ga classic!

Georgia Bob’s…another favo in Middle Ga!

Nu Way Wieners…Famous Flaky Ice and Good Tea…what a winning team!

Best of Best...while in luxury, drink tea in luxury!

Sea Island…good quality tea, good sugar ratio, good limes.

Old Edwards Inn…Highlands…need I say more

Botega…such a fan of Frank Stitz!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Sour Cream Muffins…almost a buttermilk biscuit!

“Biscuits, always hand rolled, were about as big around as a small handed fist. Hot from the oven, the delightful blend of flour and buttermilk would dissolve in my mouth. In a way, this is how I imagined cotton would taste. When I traveled to Europe, my worries over European cuisine vanquished when I found a brown paper package tied with string. Its contents yielding a small cache of Mrs. Mary’s biscuits—making all the Parisian patisseries envious of my imported food stuffs from South Georgia. The tops of the biscuits would immediately from the oven be basted with butter, forming a flaky amber top. My iniquities would thus increase, adding another swab of sweet, creamy butter to the gauzy innards, forming such an unholy alliance of aromas and tastes that sinfully good could only describe. As domestic deity, Mary was unrivaled.”
- An excerpt from my memoirs…

Mrs. Mary makes the best buttermilk biscuits…THE BEST! I’ve watched her make them with flour, Crisco, buttermilk, pinches of salt, soda, and “sumpin” else but I can’t master her recipe. These sour cream muffins score a close second in taste to hers and have a great texture. The little morsels are a mainstay at la Farmer’s table!

sour cream muffins...almost a buttermilk biscuit!!!!!

8 ounces of sour cream

2 cups of self rising flour

1 cup of butter…2 sticks, softened

* Blend the above three ingredients until well incorporated. Spoon into muffin or mini muffin tins and bake at 375 until golden. (I like them slightly undercooked rather than crispy…that’s just this cooks preference!)

*Cook’s note…these little bits are something else…a dab of apple butter didn’t hurt either!

Serving these with the Farmer' Rosemary and Mustard Pork Tenderloin
wont hurt anyone's feelings either!

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