A Polar Vortex Situation

Bitter Oranges and Lemons

Bitter Oranges and Lemons

Hello again, and welcome to 2014 at the Brenham Cottage.

We are expecting serious cold tonight and tomorrow. While the brunt of the “polar vortex,” as some meteorologists have called it,  is sweeping through the Midwest with almost unimaginable cold, it’s frigid enough here in Central Texas to bring out the freeze cloth. That is a chore I rarely bother with, preferring to let the little darlings either fend for themselves or perish to make room for the new come spring. This is the first winter in some time in which the garden looks like it’s been through an actual winter, with perennials already frozen back.

The cool-weather veggies in their aluminum tanks (mostly radishes, kale, chard, lettuces, pak choy and some just-planted red onion starts) would probably survive, but I took the step of covering them and the herbs since we’ll see dips into the mid-20s for 6 or 8 hours tonight and tomorrow.

But what to do with the big bitter orange trees? They’re loaded, and the experts at Texas A&M say citrus fruit will freeze at these temperatures. An entire low section sprouted on one this year that has apparently reverted to its lemon graft, and it is loaded, too. Mr. Slicer would normally have wanted that mess pruned up, but we have a Situation next door, and the lemon branches provide a good, thorny screen.

I picked a grocery bag full this afternoon, plenty for a couple of batches of marmalade, but hate to see the biggest part of the harvest lost. Although something made a lot of them ugly this year, all pock-marked. (One friend says its residual weakness from the drought of two years ago; another friend says we got too much rain this summer.)

If only the Situation that resides a few feet from the bitter oranges would freeze and go away so easily. It has a criminal record, a powerful stereo, a couple of rebel flags and some outrageously loud motors that it likes to rev up for no apparent reason than to bully the neighborhood. OrangeBasket

Peacocks and other pleasures

The fancy part of my daily newspaper job involves attending a lot of parties in the city, by which I mean Houston.

(A neighbor here corrected me for saying I was going to “town” one day. “You mean ‘the city,'” she said curtly. “Here, ‘town’ means Brenham.'”)


Anyway, it can be a bit of a culture shock. Sometimes these parties are at private homes that are bigger than our whole yard. Last week I visited a lush estate where a genuinely lovely Indian woman I know was being honored by several dozen designer-clad friends for her 40th birthday.


The poolside tables were outrageously colorful, with flowers as vibrant as the linens, including exotic proteus, orchids and lilies.


Many of the guests blended right in.

The life of the party.

The life of the party.

But wouldn’t you know it, a guy in simple white grabbed all the attention.


He turned sideways, fluttered his fan and showed his rump when women approached. Not all that appealing, actually.


While the humans enjoyed the buffet poolside, he lounged like a prince, although he could have been mistaken for a wedding veil.

Monster beets

Beets as big as your head!

Beets fit for Goliath.

You don’t always know what you’re going to get when you pull up greens from winter root vegetables like beets and turnips. Even a master gardener like our friend Suzanne can be surprised – kind of like feeling something ominous suddenly tugging the end of your fishing line.

A cooler-than-normal spring has given us a prolonged season for winter vegetables, and Suzanne is still harvesting a few. She brought some fresh-from-the-earth goodness for dinner one night recently.


But, my, what beets you have! What to do with a 4.5 pounder? She had two of them, gargantuan roots that could have been used in one of those kettle bell exercise classes.

They were easier to chop than we expected and surprisingly edible. We juiced them with a little fresh mint, apples and a stray clementine or two. It made a rather large mess with all the greens in our small kitchen.

So, a little lesson: Don’t leave the root veggies to fend too long for themselves. Or the summer veggies, either, for that matter. Beware, the season of squash is fast approaching.

Garden Market

People in the country know how to make the most of space.


The new Garden Market & Bakery opened recently on Blue Bell Road in a rather unlikely spot, next to a large landscaping company.


They’re related, actually; a nice patio area out back that serves as the “showroom” for all of Glasco’s hardscaping options is being readied and will be available for special events.


But you don’t need any special reason just to stop in for a cup of coffee and a pastry. The goods also include a nicely curated selection of gifts. Note to self: Gifts. That means you are not shopping for yourself. No cabinet cluttering allowed!

Acrobatic caterpillars

They ate themselves out of house and home, and they have disappeared, hopefully to pupate.





The party lasted several days, and they left the place trashed. Not a leaf or blossom on it. The gardener could have pulled the dill stalk that remained, but left it alone. Perhaps because our weather has been cool, it’s sprouted new leaves and a blossom.

Little lesson: Don’t panic. Things recover. And there will be Monarch butterflies soon, assuming the mockingbirds didn’t pick them all off.

Discipline with Excess-ories

Living small is not about acquiring more.  The consumer orgy known as Round Top is not a good place to be if you are trying to learn to let go of stuff. The event long ago stretched beyond the idyllic burg of Round Top for miles in both directions along Texas Highway 237, about 20 minutes from Brenham, bringing a wild mix of antique, collectible and junk fairs twice a year, in early April and early October.

Hard to resist, especially when the vendor explains that she's making her chandeliers on the spot from combined parts.

Hard to resist, especially when the vendor explains that she’s making her chandeliers on the spot from combined parts.

If you have just a smidgen of shopping gene in you, Round Top exerts a powerful pull. My niece Lesley hadn’t ever experienced it, so I took her out for a very long day earlier this month. She’s contemplating her first apartment, and apparently planning to fill it with Coca-Cola memorabilia. We found plenty of that in the fields at Warrenton, which is where you go when you don’t mind a serious scavenger hunt. (If you want the goods beautifully curated and marked up accordingly, head to Marburger Farm.)

Some people grumble that Warrenton, long a junker’s paradise, has been overrun with cheap imported goods. But further back in the fields, you can still score a treasure here or there and find vendors with garage sale-like setups, where everything’s thrown on a few tables and marked $5 or $10.

Made here in Brenham, as it turns out.

Made here in Brenham, as it turns out.

It’s best if you’re on a mission. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, the visual cacaphony can overwhelm you pretty fast. My goal this time was simple: I’ve coveted Margaret Meier’s vintage European flax linens for years. Based in Florida, she sets up at the Rose Field in Warrenton as Vintage Fabrics & Etc. I had a project in mind: recovering a much-loved chair we bought for $75 years ago in the mountains of North Carolina.

European flax linen: Stay tuned. The chair should be ready in three weeks.

European flax linen: Stay tuned. The chair should be ready in three weeks.

My eyes fell on a 13-yard bolt with a double butterscotch stripe in a darker-than-usual color. Margaret, a subtle but sure saleswoman, assured me I’d made a great choice: the butterscotch was rare, she promised, especially on a bolt so wide. Almost $700 later, it was in my trunk. And we’d been out less than an hour, with the full day ahead of us. Dangerous.

Of course you don't need it, but these vendors sure know how to make you think you do.

Of course you don’t need it, but these vendors sure know how to make you think you do.

My discipline held up with objects like bird cages and lanterns. But because the garden yields so much joy, and it needs to be brought inside or shared with friends, I have allowed myself to continue collecting small vases. As luck would have it, a booth that clearly stood out as something different was at the aptly-named Excess show, where a lot of the dealers make and sell goods from repurposed industrial objects.

I could see these hanging from the living room ceiling.

I could see these hanging from the living room ceiling.

Many of these vendors are regulars but I hadn’t seen John Norton before. A chemist from North Carolina, he buys up lab glass from factories — test tubes, beakers and such — and “Silver Flashes” them. He says that unlike mercury glass, his pieces hold water; although he warns against shoving in thorny rose stems, which can scratch the silver.)

Lesley shops the Industrial Age Antiques booth at Excess.

Lesley shops the Industrial Age Antiques booth at Excess.

Norton’s beakers exude the coolness of objects you might see in a MoMA catalog. In fact, he said MoMA had contacted him about selling them. Look for them in the museum store soon if you’re in New York. In the meantime, Norton’s company, Industrial Age Antiques, also has a website.

I cratered.

I cratered.

I managed to keep my purchase to just small bulb-shaped vase. Lesley couldn’t resist, either. She’s a fast learner.

the roughage shines like a miracle

April is National Poetry month, and Mary Oliver’s “Poppies” caught my eye today. The last norther of what has been a beautiful, unusually long spring for us has deadheaded most of the pompom poppies today. The ‘Martha Gonzales’ roses are going to be much happier soon.

live in the layers



by Mary Oliver (1935- )

The poppies send up their
orange flares; swaying
in the wind, their congregations
are a levitation

of bright dust, of thin
and lacy leaves.
There isn’t a place
in this world that doesn’t

sooner or later drown
in the indigos of darkness,
but now, for a while,
the roughage

shines like a miracle
as it floats above everything
with its yellow hair.
Of course nothing stops the cold,

black, curved blade
from hooking forward—
of course
loss is the great lesson.

But I also say this: that light
is an invitation
to happiness,
and that happiness,

when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive.
Inside the bright fields,

touched by their rough and spongy gold,
I am washed and washed
in the river
of earthly delight—

and what are you going to do—
what can you do
about it—

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Poppies as big as the house!

Papaver somniferum var. paeoniflorum

Papaver somniferum var. paeoniflorum

Thank god they were not red.


The poppies I thinned in February surprised me by exploding like pink fireworks, towering over the poor ‘Martha Gonzales’ chorus line like Ziegfield showgirls. They have been stopping traffic for weeks.


Betty across the street, who gave me the seeds in a small vial last fall, now tells me I must plant them there every year. I suspect they will reseed, if I leave a few before collecting the gorgeously graphic, illegal-looking seedheads; but of course, they will never perform quite the same. It would rain less or more, or be warmer or colder, or cloudier or sunnier. Gardening is not a predictable sport, even when the gardener practices consistency.


But my, what a spectacular spring it has been.


After scrambling to Google, I have determined that they are Papaver somniferum var. paeoniflorum, commonly called peony or pompom poppies. Indeed, while they aren’t fragrant, they are probably the closest we will ever get in this climate to a flower that rivals a poppy.

What Remy thought of them, far left.

What Remy thought of them, far left.

I’ve brought some indoors. They pair nicely with the shoots from the artemesias that are smothering the roses along the fence.


One online source, One Stop Poppy Shop, offers them in range of colors, including a gorgeous, deep burgundy.


Home Sweet Farm comes to town

The entrance to Home Sweet Farm Market on Baylor Street in Downtown Brenham.

The entrance to Home Sweet Farm Market on Baylor Street in Downtown Brenham.

As if I needed another reason to love Brenham!

Home Sweet Farm has opened a fantastic fresh market downtown, featuring gorgeous produce and other goods made within 50 miles of here. It’s open on Wednesdays and Sundays. I visited last Sunday (and again today), and was thrilled to see customers streaming in.

Last weekend, cool weather crops still prevailed. Sweetest cauliflower I've ever tasted. I roasted it and made curried cauliflower soup.

Last weekend, cool weather crops still prevailed. Sweetest cauliflower I’ve ever tasted. I roasted it and made curried cauliflower soup.

Nine years ago Farmer Brad, as Brad Shufflebeam is widely known, and his wife Jenny founded the Houston area’s first CSA cooperative. They’ve been quite successful, trucking their beautiful bounty 70 miles southeast to Houston.

The darling Shufflebeam family: Corena, Brad, Jenny and Brook.

The Shufflebeam family: Corena, Brad, Jenny and Brook.

The great irony has been that here in Brenham, about 7 miles from the Shufflebeam’s 22 verdant acres, the only farmers market for years didn’t offer much in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables. It was charming and well-meaning, but unfortunately it disappeared this winter. Word was they were offering too many homemade products – including a lot of home canned goods and pastries – without proper licenses to sell commercially.

The Home Sweet Farm Market has all the legal i’s dotted and t’s crossed. One of the last elements to be approved, Jenny said, was the bathroom – of all things! (They had to prove it existed in the space already; otherwise they’d have been forced to upgrade it to make it ADA compliant.)

Bee Good, a Navasota-based company, offers beautifully packaged honey as wekk as these pretty beeswax candles.

Bee Good, a Navasota-based company, offers beautifully packaged honey as well as these pretty beeswax candles.

The market opened April 7 and very quickly its Facebook page had 1,000 likes. I’m hoping this is a sign of things to come. This town has so much potential, and it feels like it’s really starting to gel.

Our fridge is full of fresh bounty, including strawberries, beets, carrots, cauliflower, kale, potatoes and broccoli. Tonight I roasted the farm-raised chicken we bought there. Wow. I had almost forgotten that chicken could actually taste like, uh, chicken.

Still eating the bounty I brought home.

Still eating the bounty I brought home.

Artisan cheeses are coming soon.

A palette emerges

It’s one thing to adhere to a “live with less” philosophy in the house. I don’t miss having cabinets full of dishes we never use, and nine months into this gig I’ve forgotten some of the possessions that are stowed in the Abominable Storage Unit because I JUST COULDN’T BEAR to part with them.

But limiting the palette in the garden – now, that takes some serious restraint. One of the things we love about the little house in Brenham is the color it’s painted – a soft gray-blue that also happens to be one of my favorite plant colors. So from the beginning, I had in mind to keep the front beds, at least, to a very strict color scheme using silver-blue, peachy-apricot and burgundy.


‘Frances Dubreuil’ close-up.

With the exception of a few ‘Grand Primo’ narcissus (creamy white with butter yellow cups), ‘Ice Follies’ daffodils (also white and yellow), orange calendulas (because I was desperate and couldn’t find the apricot ones) and the mystery poppies grown from seed a neighbor gave me, I was more disciplined than usual through the fall planting season. Even the trees fit the scheme, with three Arizona cypress and an olive. (My friend Suzanne did talk me into including a Mexican buckeye, which may fall more into the pink category. It’s just beginning to bud.)

A little bit of a cheat: a pot of dianthus and marigolds.

A little bit of a cheat: a pot of dianthus and marigolds.

The roses – typically my foundation plants – were easy choices, including ‘Frances Dubreuil’ (burgundy), ‘Adam’ (creamy peach), ‘Winter Sunset’ (another peach),  and ‘Star of the Republic’ (another peach!) along the picket fence; ‘Crepuscule (golden apricot) on the arbor, ‘Maggie’ (deep cerise) on a tutor and ‘Jude the Obscure’ (cabbagey peach) who required yet another bed to be dug. ‘Abraham Darby’ may yet be moved from the back yard to join them.



The scheme is finally starting to show along the fence, with ‘Adam’ and ‘Frances Dubreuil’ putting on their first blossoms above growing tufts of Artemesia ‘Colchester White.’

'Frances Dubreuil' above Artemesia 'Colchester White'

‘Frances Dubreuil’ above Artemesia ‘Colchester White’

Plays nice with salmon-colored Salvia Gregii, too.

Plays nice with salmon-colored Salvia Gregii, too.

I love ‘Frances Dubreuil’ so much I’ve turned up the burgundy a notch with two new finds: ‘Ruby Port’ Columbine – amazingly rich little flowers dancing on skinny stalks, with buds that look as exotic as ancient, elongated tulips – and Indian Feather ‘Passionate Rainbow’, a guara that at least for now has burgundy leaves.


‘Ruby Port’ Columbine

You want just enough of this color to add depth but not so much it looks like a goth party. This isn’t The Addams Family garden!


‘Ruby Port’ Columbine (aquilegia) before planting.


Not sure it will thrive in our climate, but how could I resist? And if I want to build on the palette, the lime green and soft yellow are good candidates.