Thursday Thoughts

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Gardens are a wonderful distraction for me. How about you? With so much negativity flooding the air waves and crowding print media, do you feel it pulling your own thoughts down into an abyss of despondency? It’s hard to think positively, to treat each day as a gift to be savored, to live hour by hour, never mind plan for an uncertain future. Well, stop here and take a deep breath. Walk outside, if you can, and take a look around you.

In my own little corner of the world in the Pacific Northwest, fall is well underway, with winter temperatures on its heels. This week ushers in 20 degree Fahrenheit nights, yet promises sunny days up into the 40s. Late yesterday afternoon, I snipped the last of the proverbial “last roses of summer” still blooming in my own garden — Betty Prior (c. 1935) — and gathered them into a bouquet of long stems standing in a glass beer stein.

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Betty Prior roses in the garden

The back corner Sweet Gum tree has already turned golden/orange with splashes of red among green, a striking contrast to the Colorado Blue Spruce behind it. I see it through my study window while I work at my writing desk, those roses on a small table nearby.

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Sweet Gum

Birches across the front of my property rapidly turn gold, so bright that, even on cloudy days, they appear as lamps shining through the drawing room windows, another contrast against grey skies. Soon those yellow leaves will carpet the lawns and call me outside to sweep them up while Charlie (my golden Cocker Spaniel) dashes about.

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Birch Trees

Negativity? Not here!

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A reader asked about the curved herb cutter that I mentioned in my previous post, “Parsley Sage Rosemary & Thyme.”

It’s called a French Messaluna Herb and Vegetable Chopper.

The curved steel blade has wooden handles on each end to allow for the fresh garden herbs to be quickly and efficiently chopped. I don’t own one but wish I did. It’s available from as well as Sur la Table and Williams-Sonoma and other sources. Check online. Prices range from $30 to $70-$100 and up.

This antique Mezzaluna or demi-lune, meaning “half moon,” was found in the south of France.

Parsley Sage Rosemary & Thyme

I’m celebrating a little personal gardening victory today: just chopped a large mound of Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, yielding one full measure cup from half of one plant. I’ve never had this much fresh parsley before this year. Usually it bolts by August. Still more remains for me to harvest for fall and winter soups and stews.

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In spite of a summer of yo-yo temperatures and almost a couple of weeks of smoke from wildfires, the herbs in my potager have blessed me with bountiful yields. Not only the Italian parsley, but also sage, rosemary, and two types of thyme — German and Lemon. All these, along with basil and dill, I used during the summers by pinching off just what I need for a particular recipe.

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Last year I learned how to chop parsley at the butcher’s in Rosauers when I paused to watch him chopping away on a large wood cutting board.


He was better than a television cooking show!

However, my first attempt at home was less than satisfactory. Just picked fresh herbs, with stems still attached, don’t yield right away to a knife blade. My first bunch merely turned to mush, so I decided to used only fresh leaves as I needed them for recipes. Now I know better.

First step after harvesting about half the plant is to rinse the bunch under cool running water. Roll loosely in a kitchen towel and pat somewhat dry. Spread on a drying screen or in a large vegetable strainer.

When you are ready to process the parsley, carefully remove the leaves from the stems and pile in the middle of a wood or marble board. Keep your piles small enough to chop finely through with a large kitchen knife or herb cutter.

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Return the finely chopped parsley to the drying screen or basket and spread out. Set aside away from heat and allow to dry thoroughly before storing in small glass jars. Label and date.

Sage and thyme can be harvested or left to snip as needed all winter, even under snow. Rosemary, however, must be potted and brought indoors in most climates.

I dry sprigs of thyme on a screen, then rub bunches between my palms to release the dried leaves and discard the stems. Finally, I store the crushed leaves in a glass jar.

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Fall Fruit Galette Dough

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Usually I make puff pastry for all my pies. Layers and layers of buttery dough create a light, flaky crust. For a fruit galette, however, the dough must be strong and sturdy because galettes are baked on a flat surface, not in a pie plate or pan. The fruit will spill and spread out, otherwise, since there are no “walls” to hold it inside the dough as it bakes.

For one 10-inch galette crust:

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

3/4 cup cold unsalted butter

3 tablespoons ice water; more if needed

egg white

Mix dry ingredients and cut in the cutter with a pastry blender. Add ice water and mix by hand, adding water as necessary to make the dough stick. Cover with a tea towel and allow it to rest 30 minutes.

Dump the pastry onto a lightly floured board or marble slab. Press down on the dough; fold it over on itself a few times until it holds together. Flatten the dough into a round loaf; roll out into a one-inch disk and place onto a flat baking surface such as a pizza stone, or parchment paper on a large cookie sheet.

Now the dough is ready for its prepared fruit filling. Pour it into the center and spread over the dough, leaving a two-inch border. Fold over the edges all around and pat into place. Brush egg white over the folded dough both to strengthen it and to add a nice golden brown sheen during baking.

For a bit of sparkle, sprinkle granulated sugar on top of the brushed egg white.

Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 50-55 minutes.

About half-way though the baking process, cover the dough edges with an aluminum foil shield to protect the dough from over browning.

After baking is complete, lift out the baking sheet and galette together. Set on a rack on the kitchen table or counter and allow to cool a bit before serving.

Choices of fruit fillings for rustic pies — galettes — are as varied as a baker’s imagination! I have used peaches, pears, blueberries, as well as mixed fruits like peaches with berries. Left overs are great for breakfast the next morning, too; just cover with a tea towel and leave out overnight on the kitchen counter.

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Now, go visit your local farmer’s market or fruit stand before those late summer fruits are sold out. Remember to wear your favorite mask, too.

Lazy Tomatoes?

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I’ve just found out why my tomatoes fail to ripen in a more timely manner. After all, our summer has been hot enough, from the 90s to triple digits, and I expected a near bumper crop from my healthy, lush Brandywine bush I bought from a reputable nursery in early May. The plant developed and grew well, up to five feet, at which point I topped it off. But most of the blossoms failed to produce fruit, and the ones that did were, and are, slow to ripen.

The optimum temperature range, however, should be 70 to 75 degrees Farenheit, I now know. Anything substantially warmer or cooler slows down the process. Yes, we’re having cooler nights than usual, pleasant for sleeping with opened windows but not for growing summer vegetables. The further from ideal temps, the less efficient osmosis becomes.

The pigments that give tomatoes their red colors, lycopene and carotene, simply cannot be produced beyond the optimum temperature range. Moreover, bright sunshine isn’t really necessary for ripening tomatoes. Instead, it’s increased ethylene synthesis that controls the ripening process. 

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Increased fertilizer and water won’t do the trick, either. In fact, extra fertilizer can be harmful to the plant in extremely hot weather by burning the roots rather than providing nutrients. Gradually, plants are unable to absorb water and nutrients; the leaves turn yellow and wilt. Growing heat-tolerant varieties, on the other hand, will help the plant take up the calcium already in the soil.

So what are they, especially heirloom varieties? Check with local garden centers and nurseries in spring, keeping in mind that individual characteristics can change within varying microclimates. Here is a partial list from Organic Farming and Gardening School (John Michael,, January 9, 2020):


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Cherokee Purple

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Early Girl

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Green Zebra

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Yellow Pear

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If I were a color, I’d be Blue.
If I were an everyday fragrance, I’d be Lavender.
If I were a special occasional fragrance, I’d be Gardenia.
If I could be my favorite movie character, I’d be Melanie Hamilton from Gone With the Wind.
If I am angry, I spout off like a kettle at the boil.
If I were mysterious, I wouldn’t tell you ~ It wouldn’t be a mystery, would it?

La Casa Aperta

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A stranger passing by need not bother to search for a door knocker. He won’t find it. He will, however, find a welcome “oh, you’re here!” Such is the Italian la casa aperta concept: the perpetual “open house.” The doors are left standing open to a loggia and courtyard. Breezes float through. An occasional bird flits in and gets lost.

This is the front entrance for My House in Umbria, set in Tuscany, Italy, and starring the inimitable Maggie Smith, British actress.

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The back door leads onto a loggia and an open side patio. A second door, below right, leads to a lower courtyard garden.

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I liked that open concept so much that I adapted it for my own back door patio. Sliding doors open from the library onto a patio I redesigned as a courtyard garden. I keep the doors wide open during pleasant weather in spring and summer and throughout September. I arranged a group of potted ferns and geraniums. A pair of large urns, filled with geraniums, lobelia, trailing vinca and silver nettle, top pedestals flanking the entrance to the lawns. Instead of a pergoda for wisteria, as pictured above, a patio umbrella provides midday shade. Sometimes I hang a pot of  trailing English ivy from one of the spokes.

This courtyard is our summer house where we relax into a laissez-faire mentality, ignoring the time until supper either al fresco or in the library. In fact, I refuse to install one of those patio clocks on the wall, beguiling as the designs are that I find in garden shops. Gardens are meant to be timeless. We like to savor the early evening until the night drops its curtains and the library lamps flick on.

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NOTE: All photos are still shots of scenes from My House in Umbria ( The film is based on the novel by William Trevor, featuring Mrs. Emily Delahunty who owns a small villa she runs as a pensione in the Italian countryside.