Author Archives: Molly Glentzer

About Molly Glentzer

I write about arts, culture, gardens and green space. Recently opted to be released into the wild after 22 years with the Houston Chronicle, where I was a senior writer and critic. Human culture meets horticulture in my book 'Pink Ladies & Crimson Gents: Portraits and Legends of 50 Roses' (Clarkson Potter, 2008; with photographer Don Glentzer).

Banner Day 2.26.12

3 things I read today in the Brenham Banner-Press:

1. 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 appeared in the Page 1 “Today’s Verse” box, placed prominently in the center above the masthead: “Do you know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolators nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

2. From the story, “Adults are acting up at Unity Theatre”: “Acting can be stress free for some. Damaris Koziol has had the bug for a long time but never acted. However, she did dance. ‘I did exotic dance with fire and feathers which was exciting, but I enjoy this as well.'”

3. From the Brenham Beat column: “Sunday at 9:41 p.m., three females between the ages of 21 and 48 years were caught shoplifting at Walmart. Because the females were accompanying several children and claiming they had no one to call to take charge of the children it was decided to refer the case for further investigation and no arrests were made at the time.”

Little Green Ornaments

Sweetgum balls

Prettier than pecans, with a dangerous attitude, sweetgum balls have also been shaken out of their trees this week onto the streets. Don’t they look like something a Medieval torture specialist would have slung over his shoulder?

These might end up sprayed gold, dangling from a Christmas tree. Assuming we actually break down and buy one. The pressure is on, with family coming.

We haven’t had a “live” tree since the first year we were married, when in the bliss of newlywed-dom the Mr. tested his allergies for love. Unfortunately, that tree was amazingly fragrant. We took all the ornaments off and flocked it, thinking that might somehow block whatever made the Mr.’s eyes bulge red. Didn’t work.

That year, and for quite a few more, we retrieved a 1970’s vintage “bottle brush” tree from my parents’ attic. Ugliest tree ever. Then we broke down and bought a nice one, which we finally retired this summer when we moved.

It’s happy news when the marriage outlasts a few faux evergreens. Although the ritual of hauling it out and decorating it can be a source of friction. The Mr., frankly, is pretty indifferent about the whole business.

Tree shopping begins.

Now, the conundrum is limited square footage, and I was surprised to see the plethora of small-space options out there. A category called “slim” trees seems to be coming on strong, some of them about 40 inches wide at the base. And beyond “slim,” there’s the “pencil” shape – which looks positively anorexic.

Many look quite lifelike, and their designs have moved way beyond bottlebrush into forms and needles that mimic nature. Blue spruce, anyone, or Aspen fir? It makes me laugh that at Balsam Hill, which appears to be a good online source, the choices are broken down by “Most Realistic,” “Realistic” and “Traditional.” Traditional apparently meaning that you accept the tree is fake, so who cares if it looks like it was just plucked from the Blue Ridge Mountains?

And lights! You’d have to be crazy anymore to buy one that isn’t pre-lit, at least until you think about it for a minute, since you know those PVC branches are going to outlast the bulbs. And then what?

Pecan Bounty

Pecans gathered on this morning’s walk with no effort.

One thing about Blue Bell Country: It’s also Pecan Country.

A Norther blew through last night, and this morning when we walked the dog our neighborhood’s  streets were so littered with pecans I filled the pockets of my Barbour. I could have loaded up a bucket or two.

Is that why a half-dozen squirrels scampered across our yard this morning like they were on speed? One of the neighbors has been out almost every morning collecting them (pecans, not squirrels, although he’s capable of that); the feed store and a few other places have had “We buy pecans” signs posted for weeks.

Three kinds of pecans: Small natives, top, a large Mahan, center and something else – perhaps a Witchita or a Cheyenne?

There appear to be at least three varieties of pecans growing here. The big old tree in our back yard is most likely a native; its nuts are compact but mighty flavorful. A block or so away, one neighbor may have a type called the Mahan; it’s large and elongated. Somewhere in between are many other cultivated varieties.

Many cultivated varieties were bred from a “mother tree” up in San Saba, Texas that is more than a hundred years old and looked pretty bedraggled when I ventured to see it a decade or so ago for a story that appeared in Saveur.

After that adventure and plenty of taste-testing, I cooked with nothing but Wichitas for years, because they have abundant oil that gives them an extra rich flavor in baked goods.

I’m less picky these days. And it looks like some baking is in order, if only I can unearth the nutcracker from the pile of boxes in storage.

A Reflective Season

Lights from inside give the deck a warm glow at night.

Sitting on the deck tonight with a glass of wine, it was hard not to get a little philosophical. Maybe it’s the frequent sight of home care nurses checking in on the older neighbors, walking out with their clipboards and driving off. Maybe it’s the recent death of a friend’s father. Maybe it’s just the season – the inevitable winding down of another year that hums underneath all the holiday noise.

Thomas Kinkaid would have loved this place at night.

We’ve been more industrious than the squirrels since we moved here in June. What is this place we’ve made, or we’re making still — and why do we keep working so hard to make it more?

Tonight’s moon.

Go ahead, bay at the full moon, crazy woman.

Bitter orange pills

The bitter orange trees are almost ready to harvest.

When we bought our little house last year, the two trees near the end of the driveway were welcome mostly because they block the view of a metal building next door. At the time, the fruit on them looked petrified, thanks to drought, wretched heat and no attention.

This summer, with decent rains, they looked edible. We thought they were big, fat limes. They had that elongated shape and tasted vaguely like limes, only with a lot of seed. Then our friend Jean Shoup came for a visit. Not limes, she said. Lime trees freeze here. Those are bitter oranges. She said they’d make good marmalade.

A few days later, a young painter from Nicaragua was here to do some work on our walls. He noticed the trees and asked if he could come back when he wasn’t feeling well. He said his family uses the leaves to help alleviate headaches and indigestion. That gives some meaning to the idea of a “bitter pill,” doesn’t it?

Almost ripe; just a hint of green still in them.

Citrus aurantium, also known as the bigarade, sour or Seville orange, is native to southeastern Asia but it’s been distributed around the world since at least the 9th century, when it found its way to the Middle East. By the end of the 12th century, it was being cultivated in Seville, Spain, and it was reportedly the only orange grown in Europe for about 500 years. Spaniards brought it to Florida, and by the late 18th century, sour oranges were exported from there to England – where, indeed, they were used to make marmalade.

Known for their survival abilities, some bitter orange trees have been known to live for centuries. There are more than 20 forms, and sour oranges have naturalized from Florida to Mexico, among other places. I have no idea which one ours is.

The neighbor we share them with thought it was odd that the gentleman who planted them put them right on the property line. They do make a fine screen.

Bitter orange has various culinary uses and apparently makes a good vinegar. Oil from the peel is used to make flavorings, and the flowers (whose fragrance we inhaled ast spring) yield neroli oil, another raw material for flavoring that’s also used in fragrances. Sour orange is also a medicinal plant in several cultures – as our painting friend suggested – but it can have very serious side effects, speeding the heart rate and raising blood pressure, so we won’t be doing any health science experiments here.

But stay tuned for the great 2012 marmalade experiment.

Enter the trees

Trees in 30-gallon buckets, awaiting planting.

There used to be a joke about things being so slow you could see the grass grow. It doesn’t really apply in Texas, where during the summer we have to mow about once every two minutes to keep the St. Augustine from enveloping the house.

I don’t really have quite that problem, given that about 80 percent of our front yard has been covered in weeds. But now we have something that truly will take some patience and time to grow: new trees. I came home the other day from the city to find a dream delivered, thanks to my husband and my dear friend, tree wholesaler Suzanne Longley:

2 Arizona cypress, 1 olive, 1 Mexican buckeye, 1 Texas persimmon – gorgeous shape!, 1 roughleaf dogwood, 1 yaupon holly, 1 fig, 2 ‘Crepuscule’ roses and 18 ‘Martha Gonzales’ roses. The next day, her crew planted them. She helped us place them and thought we needed one more cypress – so it came a day or two later.

Almost immediately, I could see the need to move some plants and small beds I’d thrown into the landscape earlier this fall because I just had to get something into the ground.

Arizona cypress is like a small blue spruce. I believe this gorgeous, weepy-limbed variety is “Carolina sapphire,’ and they should be about twice this large in five years or so. Given the color of the house, how could we NOT have them? In this corner of the front yard, they will also help block the view of a busy street at the end of our block.

The trees turned out to be the easy part.

About a ton and a half of stone, ready to line a new bed.

When a palette of stone has your name on it, better get the epsom salts ready.

2,268 pounds of 6-inch thick Lueders Caramel Tan Wet-Sawn Limestone.

I pride myself on being quite the stone slinger, but Don had to do most of these. Very heavy.

‘Marthas’ in place, lined up like chorus girls.

Ah, the satisfaction when you’re done, of putting plants into well-prepped soil. Underneath all the weeds in our lawn is the most lovely sandy loam you can imagine. We plumped it up for this bed with 10 bags of Lady Bug Rose Magic Mix, then topped it off with five bags of native hardwood mulch.

Bring on the next project.

If you have been paying attention, you may notice some things missing now: New Plough & Hearth arbor, removed to the back yard for some other use; the stakes on it were too short to secure properly out here, given the downward slope of the yard – not from front to back but south to north – and the conundrum we created with the limestone edge of the rose bed.

Also gone: Those beautifully blooming Lindheimer muhly grasses, moved to a spot at the left back corner of the front yard. Soon to go: A silly round bed featuring the David Austin rose ‘Jude the Obscure,’ bought on impulse because a single bloom seduced me.

Soon to come: Daffodils and spring annuals to spill over the limestone edging, which looks a little too formal right now – like it’s in need of a Tuscan McMansion.

The “Action” House

The Mr. made a joke not too long after we moved in about how he could now vacuum the entire house without having to move the plug. Well, it was kind of funny but it wasn’t actually a joke.

There are times I feel cramped at my desk, in a chair that backs into a file cabinet and incessantly pulls up the corner of the rug over which it rolls.

But after happening upon this video of Christian Schallert, a cheerfully ingenious guy living in Barcelona,  I can no longer complain. The point “where it gets annoying” for him, he admits, is when his bed is rolled out, taking up much of his 258-square foot apartment, which is accessed by walking up 100 stairs.

He calls it an “action” house because all the elements (except the teensy shower and toilet) have moving parts that must be activated to be converted for multiple purposes or concealed. He stays in shape just by going to bed, watching TV or setting a table for lunch.

Needless to say, he doesn’t have to think hard about what to wear each morning.

“You’re forced not to be chaotic,” he says. And how. Now, this is inspiring.

Gravelly times

That pile of gravel has officially been cleaned from the driveway. The last of it went to creating a path from the south-side gate to the deck. Now, if those weeds could become a garden as quickly.

Moved a variegated gardenia from a pot to the ground just to make it look like we’ve started something. What I know right now: Everything in this area of the yard will have white blossoms so it can be enjoyed from the deck in the evenings.

We are so anxious just to get things in the ground we have begun a very bad habit of not properly prepping beds before we plant. Biggest problem: I keep picking up this and that at nurseries, then need to get it out of the plastic and into the soil.

The current philosophy: Dig out all the weeds and what little St. Augustine might still be alive there; throw in some Lady Bug Revitalizer Compost or similar product, plant high and mulch like hell. Borders, if we ever figure out what they will be, will come later.

The little bricks holding the gravel in place were about 40 cents each at Lowe’s – a Sunday morning score.

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Life without a dishwasher

I’ve written stories about architects who build (and live in) homes that are about 700 square feet.I keep thinking of them as we settle into our 1,100-square foot cottage.

We are not exactly roughing it, but we have lived for five months now without a dishwasher. Installing one would mean giving up storage space in our small kitchen.

Half of the kitchen at move-in.

When there are just two of you, the dishwasher becomes mostly a receptacle for storing dishes; a way to procrastinate. You still rinse them, right? So why not just go ahead and wash?

So far, so good. It only took about two months to choose a drain pan. We eventually went with the simplest Rubbermaid thing out there, passing on fancy models that cost a lot and take up more space.

The slight downside: Seems like there are always dishes in the sink, since we almost never dry them right after washing them. So we really haven’t cured that procrastination thing, have we?

Could we really just be using the same two bowls, two salad plates and two dinner plates OVER and OVER again? Which means unless we have company, that’s all we really need.

Early summer: Our first dinner outside on the deck.

Gardens vs. Landscapes

Now the real fun begins.

Only about five bags’ worth of gravel still left on the driveway, with several mud-prone areas now looking much neater and the front walk ready for the next phase: more digging, garden prep and planting. Oh, and if we must, planning.

Rough sketch of backyard paths.

We’ve dutifully measured every aspect of the yard – distances between fences, between house and fence, between house and street, between house and Parthadon (more on that later) and applied it to graph paper. I spent a good part of a Saturday toying with the way the front might look using the garden planning tool at Better Homes & Gardens website, www.bhg.com. They’re just approximations because the plants on their list aren’t the plants I have on my list, or even right for Brenham’s climate, but I just chose things that looked similar to what I have in mind to create a picture. It’s a fun exercise.

The real problem with formal planning? Unless you hire a professional designer or use the most common plants, you’re going to go to the nursery with a list, find maybe a third of what you’re seeking and a half-dozen plants you hadn’t considered yet and, well, it just goes where it goes from there.

Gardens have to evolve over years, anyway. Otherwise they’re just landscapes.

I am, however, trying to be disciplined this time with a palette: I have made plant lists all summer with the idea of keeping the front yard to three tones: silver/blue gray, burgundy and apricot.

So… We stopped Sunday on the way back from Houston – a particularly long, roundabout way – at one of my favorite nurseries, The Arbor Gate, to see if we could find the perfect arbor for that new front walk.  We had the small car already crammed with the dog and some citified groceries and whatnot. It was unusually cold and blustery, on the heels of a front, but it didn’t take long to spot a few discoveries I will now have to go back for — plans be damned.

Barbados cherry was one of my all-time favorite shrubs at our last garden, both for its carefree nature and its pretty little pink flowers. I was pruning them into small trees. Until Sunday I’d never seen them any larger than a gallon pot at a nursery.

Swoon. ‘Rio Bravo’ sage alongside salvia leucantha.

And how could you not love this? Westringia rosmarinifolius – as the name suggests, a little like rosemary but delicate-looking.

Lavender is trying to creep into my scheme. Good thing the car was full and we weren’t dressed for the chill.

We had room for exactly two plants, which I scored in about five minutes:  Artemesia ‘Colchester White,’ which apparently doesn’t sucker; and David Austin’s “Jude the Obscure” rose, which seduced me with one gorgeous, peachy-cream blossom.