Anne Stinson - October 2006

A Few of My Favorite Things


Anne Stinson

Mum’s the Word for October
      We are being wooed at every garden center and roadside stand by the lure of chrysanthemums - yellow buttons, daisy-sized masses in pink, purple or bronze, and I can’t find any I like. Picky, picky, I know.
      With all the beautiful varieties of ‘mums in the world, why must we settle for the humdrum? I love Shasta daisies. I grow Shasta daisies all summer long. Why should I buy ‘mums that look like more of the same? All of this grumbling is subject to revision, of course. I’ll probably relent and buy a pair of plants, then be heartened by their color when all else is fading, go out and buy a dozen more and wonder what to do with them next spring when I have no space to grow them for fall transplant.
      Last spring I pulled them up when the tulips started to nudge above the ground. I threw the chrysanthemums in a heap under a big white pine tree, planning to dig them in somewhere else later. Out of sight and out of mind, they taught me a lesson in survival. Even with most of the soil washed off their roots by winter rains, they struggled to live. A few of them even blossomed weakly, a reproach to me every time I walked around that corner of the garden where they were abandoned.
      For inspiration, I plan to peruse the garden catalogs for ‘mums with a little more pizazz than the run-of-the-mill varieties. I’ll start them in the spring in a nursery bed and move them in September to a spot at center stage. That plan entails digging an addition to the nursery bed. Oh, lordy lord! Where our enthusiasm takes us!
      But think of it - a swath of spider ‘mums, pink and purple and white with some heft to them instead of those stiff, sissy plants with buttons on top. I hope this inspiration lasts through the chore of getting there.

It’s a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird
      Last Sunday was windless and warm, and the mockingbird put on a concert that outdid any of his performances since June. A musician friend described it in a jazzman’s terms, “running the changes.” The mocker went through theme and variations that would have made Mozart envious, almost non-stop for several hours.
I was reminded of Miss Maudie’s lecture to Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I just re-read for the umpteenth time. She said, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for people to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
      To which I can only add, Amen.

Chestnut Harvest Makes Us Giddy as Squirrels
      Reports drift in that some people’s chestnut trees didn’t do well this year, but such was not the case in our neck of the woods. A neighbor called to say that their trees were bearing a bumper crop and, knowing how much I love chestnuts, invited me to help myself.
      Bonanza time! I love their slightly mealy texture in bread stuffing and always add chestnuts to part of the stuffing in my Thanksgiving bird. One part of the turkey cavity gets bread stuffing with chestnuts and the other half is filled with cornbread and pecan mixture. For a snack, I can demolish a potful of boiled chestnuts eaten out of the shell. It’s a delicious but messy treat.
      At any rate, I hied to the end of the neighbor’s garden with a basket, stout shoes and leather gloves, armed for the chore. The defense strategy is designed for protection against the needle-sharp burrs that surround the beautiful, glossy nuts. Last year I wore thin slippers for my foray and did a constant dance as the spiky points pierced the sides of my shoes and poked holes in my fingers.
      Gathering chestnuts is as time-critical as a space launch. To be sure you’re not going to harvest a wormy crop, you almost have to catch the chestnuts in mid-air because, once on the ground,, worms drill holes in them as if they were iron filings next to a magnet. That’s supposition on my part; maybe the worms are already in the chestnuts while they’re on the tree. Whichever is the case, it’s a race to get them before the worms do.
      All the cookbook instructions I’ve ever read begin with an injunction to use a sharp knife to make a split in the nutshells before roasting or boiling them. After years of risking losing a finger to a knife slip on the hard, shiny surfaces, I say the devil with it. I wash off the dirt, cover them with water in a big pot and turn on the stove. After a while - say 25 minutes or a half hour - I fish one out, hold it under the cold water faucet and slice off the bottom. If it’s done, fine; otherwise, the pot is left to simmer longer.
      In past years I’ve subscribed to the rule that says chestnuts must be peeled while they’re still warm for the shells to come off easily. This year I ran out of energy before the job was done. When I got a second wind, the shells came off just as easily (which is, in truth, not very).
      There must be a better trick to peeling chestnuts, an exercise that invariably leaves me wounded where sections of shells stab me under the fingernails. If a reader can offer advice, I’d be grateful.
      In spite of my urgency about getting the chestnuts before the worms and squirrels did, the worms still beat me to the punch on lots of them, a discovery I made while peeling them. I kept a close watch for cooked worms, of which there were many, and those went straight to the compost pile along with their half-peeled shells. Maybe the squirrels will enjoy them there.
      One firm rule applies: Never eat boiled chestnuts in a dim light.

A Time to Plant – A Time to Pluck
      Perfect happiness comes in as many definitions as there are people. I’d nominate as one of mine Saturday a week ago. The sun was warm, cotton ball clouds wafted from the south over the river and I had 100 tulip bulbs to plant in the circular fountain bed. The chore sped by easily, thanks to sweaty, back-breaking work in August when the bed was prepared, so the bulb planter slid into the good earth like a warm knife through butter.
      All the while, geese flew overhead and honked their excited song of autumn. It was so nice I couldn’t bring myself to quit, so I moved on to the perennial beds and pulled up the bedraggled petunias that filled in spaces among the spreading perennials. In another year or two the annuals will have even less room and will have to move to a bed of their own as the permanent plants grow out of adolescence, but that’s a happy chore for another year.
      So much of gardening is future-oriented that it was lovely to recognize the perfect contentment of here and now for a change.
      By the time my back was screaming “Enough, old girl!” a skein of geese pitched for a landing beyond the trees over near the cove, so I unlimbered for a walk in that direction. There were no geese on the water - they apparently liked the looks of the next cove downriver, but on a stake in the water a squatty kingfisher perched with beady eyes on the lookout for dinner.
      Kingfishers always make me think of Edward G. Robinson. Their heads are too big for their short bodies. Their necks are too thick to be graceful and they have a ragged crest on top of their heads as rakish as a gangster’s. Add to that a bill nearly as big as a heron’s and it isn’t hard to visualize them smoking a cigar.
The perfect October day was a perfect gift. I swear it was so beautiful there’s probably a law that makes it a felony to stay cooped up in the house on such a day. I’m trying not to think of the days to come when we’ll probably have to.