Planting

Pam’s Pictorama Post: My mother has always had a garden. Perhaps it speaks to her largely Italian roots where there was a grape arbor in the backyard, cherry and other fruit trees and a kitchen garden for vegetables. (Posts about my grandmother’s house and that yard can be found here, here and here.) It was fertile soil (Jersey is, after all, the Garden State) and responsive to care and planting.

The Cittadino family yard at the turn of the century.

Mom also majored in zoology and botany in college which was as close as she (she a mere woman at a girl’s college) could come to a pre-med course. Much of that work in botany would come out over time, making up the fascinating accumulation and source of information my mother is. (Although of course I suppose that’s what mother’s are!)

In the first house I have clear memories of residing at, there was an impressive rock garden planted by the previous owners. It climbed up the sloping backyard and in my child’s memory was enormous – probably much smaller than I remember. One of my earliest memories is being about 3 and sitting with my mom as she worked in that garden. I think she was weeding and I picked up a handful of tiny frog as I ‘helped’ her. He jumped, we all jumped and I screamed in terror as my mom tried to explain the nature of the frog to me.

I believe that this more formal sort of garden was not really mom’s taste which was clearly a bit more natural, wild even. However, presented with this beautiful garden she certainly did tend it lovingly.

In the cottage on the river where we lived until I was about 11 the soil was sandy and salty from the water. Betty dug her heels in and really did battle to make anything grow there. Through considerable grit she achieved a smattering of rose bushes and something that served as a lawn, although may have been largely well-trimmed weeds in reality. No matter, lawn was never a passion of hers.

Magnolia tree near mom’s which inspired the purchase of one for her yard.

In summer she coaxed a bay of giant sunflowers in a side yard that was otherwise a fairly no-nonsense vegetable garden. It was there that I learned the joy of bountiful homegrown tomatoes and a surfeit of zucchini, and the occasional eggplant. It was tough going though and I also remember the failure of corn and all the evergreen trees that died too. (She had had a plan to buy live trees for Christmas and plant them. As one after another died she realized that this plan would not work and bought an artificial tree instead. The practice of cutting trees for Christmas really bothers her.)

The yard was all mom’s. Dad traveled constantly for work and his schedule only allowed for occasional involvement where he worked under mom’s direction. His background as a city kid did not allow for much gardening expertise or interest.

We moved several blocks away when I was about 12 and there my parents stayed until a few years ago. Although still on the water it was less likely to flood and the soil, while not that of her youth, was definitely several notches better.

Here she planted numerous trees, which we had the pleasure of seeing mature over those decades. Because the water table was still very high, it was the willows that thrived, although there were nice oaks and maple trees too, a weeping cherry. There were some lovely old trees on the property, one outside my bedroom window housed a screech owl, foxes made a home of a dead one in the backyard. She had her tree failures – a beloved copper beech that never really thrived as I remember.

Irises in mom’s yard, but not the ones she brought from the other house.

She was serious about tree care and people came at least annually to examine, prune and make suggestions. Living in a hurricane zone it was necessary to know that your trees were fit to withstand those high winds. After the devastation of Hurricane Sandy the loss of trees in the yard and the neighborhood left it sad and denuded. These were old friends that were gone now.

In this yard mom combined flowers and vegetables. There was a grapevine and strawberries – the wildlife got far more of these than we ever did however. The tiny delicious strawberries seemed somewhat miraculous to me. Tomatoes still reigned, but herbs were what I remember most. She planted them in the ground, but also in containers. It was lovely to hop outside and snip some fresh herbs for whatever I was making for dinner.

Mom’s house when we first purchased it.

There were glorious rose bushes in a variety of colors and some stunning irises that a friend had made a gift of and which he had brought from his home in New Orleans. There were azaleas and a glorious butterfly bush. In later years, with no family to feed, mom focused her planting on flowers and plants that would attract and feed the birds, insects and wild life of the area. The result was a cacophony of birds, buzzing bees and often a half dozen bunnies in view at any time. Deer found their way there and fox. Hawks and even vultures stopped by looking for prey. The yard was a wild kingdom of sorts in later years.

Mom’s house earlier this spring.

When mom moved into her current house she had a blank slate as the previous owners had only done basic maintenance. Mom is housebound now, but has a trusted gardener known only as Mike to me. Between them they have transformed the small yard, front and back. Mom is entirely focused on flowers which she enjoys from a windowed room at the back of the house. The irises were rescued and transplanted here and she can tell you about other plants and bulbs shared by friends and acquaintances, some rescued from Mike’s other jobs when they no longer suited the owners.

I have contributed some peonies (which have come into their own this year), a hummingbird feeder and a weeping cherry and a magnolia tree are on their way to her presently as belated Mother’s Day gifts. I took a tour of the yard when I was there last weekend and it was nice to see how it has grown in. After this long year spent in our Manhattan studio apartment walking around her little paradise is better than ever.

One of the peonies I gave mom, blooming this month.

This multi-colored honey suckle reminded me of the masses of it we had growing wild in our yard growing up. Dad showed me how to extract a single drop of nectar from each – amazing! When I remarked on it mom told me it is one of her favorites and that she had asked for it. A fact I never knew.

Multi-color honeysuckle.

In order to better survey her kingdom mom has a friend who records mini tours on video. Larry does a great job and I am enjoying these too.

Having lived in a Manhattan apartment my whole adult life I don’t know if I inherited mom’s green thumb or not. Kim, with his green thumb, tends our mass of African violets and single aloe plant. I miss those fresh tomatoes each summer!

Sour Cherries, Quince and Tomato Water

Pam’s Pictorama Post: The day before Thanksgiving a bag showed up with my doorman and tucked inside were two delightful little jars of jam and a mason jar of tomato water. These were sent by Liz, a colleague, friend and chef who lives in my neighborhood and has so kindly sent along such care packages periodically during the long, shutdown time. Her bag of goodies not only improved our breakfast repast, but set loose a wonderful torrent of memories shared with my mother, mostly of the yard I knew as my grandmother’s, where my mother spent most of her childhood. Today’s post is devoted to those memories.

The jar of tomato water which I am rapidly consuming.

To start, for those of you who have not experienced it, tomato water is the water you drain out of tomatoes. This is sometimes done before canning or cooking tomatoes down in recipes. The result, assuming you like tomatoes, is drink that is like a wonderful burst of summer in your mouth. Liz introduced me to this delight, made me a fan and always includes a mason jar of it. This one is yellow – and tastes of those different tomatoes. Still very yummy and a real treasured reminder of summer as we head into a darker, gloomier season.

Quince tree at The Cloisters

One jam is quince. It is my introduction to it and I like it very much. The only quince trees I ever made the acquaintance of were up at The Cloister’s garden in Fort Tryon Park. There are lovely ancient looking gnarled examples in that garden and a quick read shows that some types can live, with care, longer than a human life span, and that getting them to produce an agreeable fruit isn’t easy. Back in 2012, the New York Times was inspired to devote an article to quince trees, In Praise of the Misunderstood Quince, specifically launching the discussion around those venerable examples of the trees at The Cloisters.

The other jar was plum and sour cherry jam. This one opened a Pandora’s box of taste memory because I have not had sour cherry jam or preserves since childhood. My grandmother used to make it each year – children and their spouses and the grandchildren were all tasked with a morning of picking the sour cherries off of an enormous tree in her yard. As I was a small child I assume my memory of it as being an enormous tree may be a bit exaggerated, but I do believe it was a mature and large specimen.

The yellow ones are similar to the cherries I remember gathering.

The cherries were yellow with a sort of red blush – more yellow than the ones I found to show here but that is the idea. We collected them in plastic buckets – strangely I remember an aqua colored one in use specifically. My grandmother had an enormous, ancient double sink and she would be in the kitchen cleaning them as we brought them in. I don’t think I was privy to the process of cooking them down, but the end result were jars of cherries that would last us the better part of a year. This ideally to be spread on her own homemade bread which we consumed in enormous slabs.

A subsequent conversation with my mom reveals that growing up, when several generations lived in the house I knew as my grandmother’s, the property next door also belonged to them. (I have written about my grandmother’s house and yard twice before. Those posts can be found here and here.)

My grandmother’s house as it looked in 2017.

Mom tells me that her grandmother taught her that it was planted very intentionally, almost entirely with food producing plants to feed the family. (My mother points to this as being particular to the Italian immigrant side of the family which was her mother’s.) Great grandma did not approve of the decorative plants my mother liked – wasted effort and space. To my mother’s memory, in addition to the cherry tree, there was: an apricot, a walnut, a chestnut, something called a freestone peach (which evidently failed to produce much), and two pear trees. My mom remembers her father always keeping walnuts from the tree in his pocket to share with the occasional inquisitive squirrel who would come and take it from his hands.

An undated photograph of a wedding feast in what I knew as my grandmother’s yard. The grape arbor, in keeping with the food theme, was gone by the time of my childhood.

I remember the chestnuts on the ground there. (Of course I was very small and closer to the ground than the fruit bearing part of a tree after all.) The furry, prickly outside of the chestnuts always fascinated me, as did the surprise of the velvety smooth chestnut inside. I never developed a taste for chestnuts, my father was fond of them though and I believe we did toast them in our fireplace experimentally one winter. My dad would buy them on the street here in Manhattan where you can smell them roasting in winter even now. (Well, at least in the now before now – are there chestnuts roasting without tourists in midtown?) The chestnut tree was an odd survivor of a nationwide blight (not unlike that which destroyed so many American Elms), and mom says people from Rutgers came to study it and photograph it as a survivor.

Chestnuts in their furry wrappers.

I love walnuts so I am surprised I have no memory of those on the ground or of that tree specifically. The parcel of land to one side of the house was sold when I was still very small, although mom says the walnut tree was near the garage so not sold off as was one of the pear trees which sadly was cut down to build the house there.

Mom says she adored the pear trees and that she can remember eating pears right off of them. One tree was on the property that was sold and was cut down for the house to be built. The other of those two trees was destroyed by a lightening strike which split it down the middle, leaving only charred halves. Mom said it was like losing an old friend.

She shared other memories of climbing up into the apricot tree, which had a long, low lying branch, to read her library books in the summer. She and her friend Jackie had competitions to see how many books they could read in a summer – I did the same with my friends as a kid, must have been her idea. It was the beginning of my life-long voracious reading habit.

Despite being housebound these days my mother still enjoys the garden, in her recently acquired home on a small plot of land. Under her instruction, the yard has been planted by a patient and lovely man known only to me as Mike, with many flowering plants – however specifically and thoughtfully designed to feed the birds, bees, butterflies and wildlife she likes to attract and to watch from the windows. A garden that provides, but in a very different way.