Monday, September 28, 2015

The Garden Escape

I have a wider than average fire escape on the back of my brownstone apartment.  The window is large and fairly easy to get in and out of.  The sill is wide and comfortable to sit on so over the years it hasn't been too hard to assemble a small garden.  I've scavenged for pots for years and have a hodgepodge collection.  I do my best to arrange them so that if there was indeed a fire that everyone would be able to navigate through it into the garden below.                                                                                                                                             I've been doing this for more than a few years now and I've learned a thing or two about tomatoes and beans in pots.  Obviously it starts with the soil. I always set aside a larger pot to be used somewhat as a mixing bowl.  I dump soil from last year's pots into the large one and then mix it nearly equally with freshly sifted compost from 6/15. As other pots are dumped out, the soil is amended and they're filled with fresh soil.
Since it's challenging for me to get to a nursery I have to use my resources to find good plants.  There are a couple of vegetable markets nearby that sell flats of annuals, herbs and some vegetables including tomatoes.  I have a stockpile of seeds plus a trip to my community garden can yield some nice plantings, notably nicotiana, shiso, kale, calendula, mints and whatever else looks like it might work.
It's actually quite a productive little garden.  Every day I pick a few green beans and set them aside. After five days time I've got enough to throw into a dish.  The same is true for the kale (although anyone that knows me knows I grew nothing but kale in my community garden plot so this is a drop in the bucket).  I grow enough basil to fill my freezer with pesto for the year and some to give away. I've also yielded, so far, six beautiful tomatoes.  I still have eight tomatoes on the vine, still green, so hoping for a few warms days to finish those.

Other years I've grown a lot of fragrant flowers, notably nicotiana, a fluffy white flowering tobacco. It's gorgeous during the day but only at night it develops a sweet white flower fragrance.  If I keep the windows open the breeze pleasantly fragrances my bedroom. I can lie in bed and catch a sweet whiff wafting in from the Escape.

Two very large tomato plants in a window box. It needs a lot of water and to be top dressed with compost a few times per year. They grew very long and about once a week I'd have to climb the stairs and loosely tie them to the railing.

I brought back some kale and nicotiana from 6/15.  Whenever I saw a bare spot in the soil I'd plant bush beans. They ended up cascading over the side, dripping with beans when mature.

This window box faces my neighbors, a couple with two small boys. The pole beans do most of the cammouflage and the basil gets bushy and creates a nice screen. It also makes for neighborly-ness as I pass fresh cuttings over the railing.

The purple podded pole beans grew halfway up the windows on the third floor!  They've never been so robust before. They bore a lot of fruit but way up past where I could harvest it so, of course, it all went to seed.  Therefore the plant thought it had done its work and started to wither - thus all of the yellow leaves.  I've planted beans for years, using the seeds from the pods that fall during the winter.  Next year, tho, I'm planting some kind of annual flowering vine, maybe something fragrant for the breeze to blow in.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Cranford Rose Garden on a September Day

I've known forever that roses bloom in June and then, if you're lucky, again in September.  This was a strange season and one sure sign that something was amiss was that there were roses blooming nearly all summer. It seems I was stopping to smell the roses on an almost daily basis.  But after teaching a perfume blending class at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden last weekend I decided to take a walk through the Cranford Rose Garden. Most of it was roped off, probably for some rest and rehabilitation, but the blooms along the path were glorious to see, photograph and smell.

We had just had a talk in class about indole, the molecule of decay, that is present in most flowers. The rose is beautiful in a vase on your desk but it is also decaying so lingering in the background of that gorgeously fragranced flower, maybe not even very noticeable, but there in the back is decay. We're so accustomed to "deodorized" rose that the scent of a true rose absolute might smell dirty, or dank. It also makes it ravishing, sexy and compelling for however emphatically we frown on rotten odors there is a part of us that likes them.

Each rose smells differently. Some are bred for beauty, some for size and some for fragrance, but there, in the deep inhalation of each blossom, is death.

Friday, September 25, 2015

I Bought Some Carnations on the Way Home...

I've made no secret of the fact that I love carnations. I think they're the most underrated flower in the market.  They've been associated with inexpensive florists - mass produced and funereal. It's not deserved.  My mother grew carnations in her big flower garden when I was growing up.  I always loved their luscious vanilla/clove sweetness. Unfortunately the scent has been bred out of them and what remains is either scentless or stinky. Except for these! After a short hospital stay a few years ago a friend dropped by with purple and white variegated blooms that had a lovely fragrance.  I haven't seen them since until one evening this week they caught my eye as I was passing the market. Now these eye-catching flowers are all over the apartment, in a jug on the coffee table and in bud vases on my end tables, desk, bedside table and in the bathroom.  All of this luxury for $5.  Maybe carnations are best kept a secret.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

An Ode to the Rose

The roses are blooming again, although this season it seems they never stopped.  I stop, however, nearly every time a bloom extends over a wrought iron gate and presents itself to me.  I am one to stop and smell the roses.

I also stopped to collect those rose petals as they fell.  I kept collecting them until I had enough to create a small amount of cologne.  The scent of rose deepens and becomes a little powdery or dusty when they dry. I'll be making more with the second seasonal blooms. I have freshly dried sweet annie and lavender from my garden for the brew as well.

Along with roses I used vetiver root, lavender, sweet annie and dried orange peel. It has a smokey, sweet, complex aroma, something worth stopping for.

You can see these and other botanical colognes and perfumes on...

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

I'm growing a giant mullein plant this year. They usually plant themselves, with the help of the birds who deposit them arbitrarily.  This one is in my community garden herb plot which I tend.  Actually a bird deposited the seed outside of the plot and it's growing out of the stone border.  I could tell early on that it was going to be an extraordinary specimen.  A rule in our garden is to keep weeds out of the paths as well as the perimeter of the plot. Anything growing outside of it is up for grabs by the committee that oversees the annual plant sale.  In order to save it from that fate (mullein doesn't like to be transplanted - plus I wanted it for the herb garden) I set some stones around it to let everyone know that this was to be kept.  Every couple of days when I came to check on the plot the mullein was bigger so I'd adjust the stones to compensate.  It has apparently relished the attention to the point where now there is a big bulge coming out of the plot.  It's quite a spectacle and a source of amusement amongst my fellow gardeners.

Verbascum thapsus is native to Europe, Asia and
North America and is a relative of one of my favorite plants, foxglove.  It can grow in poor soil which is probably why this specimen is so happy growing outside of the plot rather than in the compost rich soil inside.  The flowers are capable of self fertilization (so I'll remember to shake the seed head this coming autumn).  They have a dense mass of thick hairs on either side making them very soft to the touch.  They frequently grow to four or five feet - this one reached seven or eight!

Mullein is a demulcent, meaning that it forms a soothing film over mucous membranes relieving minor pain and inflammation.  It has emollient and astringent properties making it a great herb for dry coughs.  It also has sedative qualities.  A tea can be made of the leaves but be sure to strain the hairs carefully as they irritate the mucous membranes.  The leaves are sometimes smoked to relieve irritation of the respiratory mucous membranes.  Smoking the dried herb can be beneficial for asthma and spasmodic coughs.

I've dried some leaves to prepare for winter tisanes and have tinctured some for sale on Etsy.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Birthday Cake

I took a little time off in August.  Because of my mother's poor health I gave up on the idea of a summer vacation and decided to stay put here in Brooklyn.  At one point in early August my brain stopped working and I struggled to get anything done.  Guilt and worry set in, that good old Protestant work ethic, until I realized that even if I wasn't going away I still needed a break.  I saw a few clients, hosted a private party and filled orders but other than that I've tried to let go and have a staycation.  It hasn't exactly been fun.  I filled my days taking care of things I've been putting off, namely big cleaning jobs and doctor's appointments.

The end of the month, tho, is birthday time.  I have a very good friend who's birthday is the day before mine (we were born mere hours apart) and we've never had the chance to celebrate together. Hers was this past Friday, mine on Saturday.  The plan was to bake a cake on her birthday and make dinner for friends and serve the birthday cake on mine.

After a lovely lunch at a local trattoria on Friday we went to the market (our local food coop) and bought supplies.  We decided on Vanilla Malt Cake.  The recipe we were using called for malt powder but when we looked at the ingredients label filled with preservatives and additives we decided for the simpler barley malt syrup.  This meant doing a little tweaking with the recipe, making sure we had the correct proportions of wet and dry ingredients.

I must confess that the batter was incredibly delicious and couldn't keep my fingers out of it.  Cleaning the bowl was sublime. The cake itself was a little heavy. We looked at recipes for honey cake and most of them were made of multiple layers. I think that would work well for this cake as well. The barley malt made it quite dense.  It was wonderful and everyone had seconds (so I know it was good!).  Still, I'd like to tweak the recipe and try again with more layers, less barley malt, more vanilla and maybe more baking powder.  Cake is a science and experiments are necessary.

We whipped up a special blush colored buttercream and I had a wonderful time playing floral designer and decorating it with flowers. It got quite a lot of oh's and ah's when it was served.  Final recipe forthcoming.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Oriental Perfumes

The idea of the Oriental perfume goes back as far as recorded history.  The people of ancient Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Rome were using the resins, balsams and spices available to them to create sacred incense and unguents.

The first modern Oriental perfume was Shalimar by Guerlain, created in 1921. It was formulated using a relatively new synthetic molecule, vanillin. Combined with labdanum and coumarin it formed the base of the perfume, along with incense and opoponax. The heart is composed of jasmine, rose and iris with lemon and lots of bergamot on top.
Shalimar caught the attention of the public at the perfect moment, when 1920's Europe was swept away by the exoticism and passion of the East.  It set a lasting trend that still intrigues and excites.

Oriental perfumes are almost always built around an amber accord.  There is no such thing as amber essential oil.  The accord is composed of a combination of vanilla and labdanum.  Other resinous notes are added for distinction, some to sweeten such as tonka bean or balsams, and some to darken and deepen like frankincense, myrrh and opoponax.

Oriental perfumes are further classified as Classical, Spicy, Woody, Soft (Incense) and Floral. Classical Oriental perfumes are dark and animalic with heady florals.  Shalimar is a perfect example. Spicy Orientals have a dry, woody base with spicy top note. Woody perfumes have a luminosity characterized by sandalwood and other rich woods.  Soft Orientals are darker and warmer but are less balsamic and animalic that Classical varieties.  They are ethereal and elegant with mysterious notes of incense and amber.  Floral Orientals combine the softness of florals with the warmth of orientals. Sweet spices mix with florals to create a sensual scent with depth and complexity.

To learn more and to create your own you can attend my Amber/Oriental Natural Perfumes class on Sunday, July 19th.