Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Few Garden "Fricks"..And More

  A zillion years ago I worked at the Carmel Valley Begonia Gardens. 
  I knew that I loved plants, and had a bedroom that was not unlike a jungle. I would visit the Begonia Gardens anytime I had a little extra cash, just to see what new houseplants were available. 

  Thinking about it now, I realize that it started before our family moved…I think I began collecting plants when I was in 7th or 8th grade…Coleus, wandering jew, asparagus ferns..all the simple 'beginner' plants. 
  When we moved to Carmel Valley, it got a little out of control. In a good way, I think. It gave me something to care for, as well as something to do. I had no friends, being the new kid, and my plants became a huge focus.

  Anyway, I bring this up because it was Noel, the then owner of the Begonia Gardens, who coined the phrase "Fricks" for any plant that went weird. Either it would revert, or get some bizarre growth pattern…something odd like that. You plant lovers know what I'm speaking of.

  Because I am so very fond of variegated plants, I will sooner or later see something odd begin in my own little garden…my own little "fricks" to love and admire...

There is a big branch going goofy here.
This is so cool….

Our Buddha likes it just fine.

  I am always tempted to try and make cuttings of these little oddities, but I haven't yet. I guess I like to see where they will go, if I just let them be. As long as they look as great as these all do, I'm happy to sit back and watch.

This small bit of beauty just popped up on this geranium.
Usually, it goes the other way, and I lose the variegation completely on a branch.
Then it's called reverting to the original. Here, it's the opposite, it seems.

   I wonder if it's something about my soil that causes this 'white-out'…? I guess it's a virus of some sort.
As long as it doesn't cause any damage to the bigger part of the plants, I'm ok with it.

  Below are two of several areas around the garden where my plectranthus is "fricking out".

So trippy…..

  …And since I was shooting some pictures in the garden, I thought I'd add these, too…Just some areas I think are looking extra sweet right now.

Oh, YUM.

I just keep making more cuttings of my favorite succulents.
Why not, eh?

  The area around the fish 'pond'..which is really a huge pot, is looking so delicious right now. Better than ever.

I've gone back to watering the container plants with MaxSea, a product I like a lot.
The results are great. I save my water for the special things...

One last shot. The purple flowers are from this Brazilian impatient plant.
It dies back in winter, but seems to be loving the Max Sea.

  I'll let you know if or when I make cuttings of my little fricks. They would be fun to spread around…!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A Visit To Le Celle

  During our visits to Umbria, we make a bunch of day trips.  It's such a perfect area to start from, and there are so many wonderful places to check out within an hour or two driving.

  We had heard about "Le Celle" from Aldo (of Bar Gallo fame) during our first visit to Panicale, but hadn't gotten around to going until last year, 2014. I can't believe we waited so long. It's a lovely spot, especially off season, which is when we normally travel.

  "Le Celle" translates to The Cells…and the full name of this place is actually "Santuario Le Celle".
  From what I've read, it dates from around 1200, and was a spiritual stop for Saint Francis of Assisi. Over several years and visits, it became a monastery which housed a small community of Franciscan monks. The Cells refer to the small rooms which were used for living quarters, as well as prayer.

  It is located in a wooded area just a few kilometers from Cortona. The drive is easy, but it is a small and narrow road. Once there, you can park and stroll around the both the gardens and the monastery. You must stay quiet, but the energy here makes this task very easy.

The signpost at the entrance of Le Celle

  Supposedly, St. Francis helped build the cells, along with a follower, Brother Elia. St. Francis also dictated his Will here, four years before his death. So is written…
  All I can say for certain is that it is beautiful, peaceful, and well worth a visit.

It was a perfect day for this.

  As you can see from these photos, the monastery is built into the side of a canyon…kind of hidden away until you are right there. I was amazed…How did they do this?

  As we approached the entrance, all we could hear were birds, the gentle sound of the breeze, and the soft murmur of water winding down the canyon… I understand completely why St. Francis chose this place to spend some serious prayer time.

The color of the stone facade with the blue sky just
makes me melt...

  We were there in late March, and though the day was a sunny one, it was not yet full blown spring. I would love to go back just to see this garden, below, in it's glory.

You pass above the garden as you approach the entrance
to the main buildings.

  We could hear the sound of water well before we saw where it was coming from. What a great surprise! I couldn't help but imagine naked Franciscan monks sliding down this algae covered rock/water slide on a warm summer evening! I could just hear the laughter echoing off the canyon walls.
  At least that's how I would love to imagine their life…lots of prayer and then some fun, you know?


  Once inside the actual chapel, we found the cell of St. Francis.

The sweet little chapel, with the cell of St. Francis to the right…
This is the "old", original chapel.

These peonies blew my mind, by the way.
Yes, real.

A place to pray and sleep...

  I think Johnny really enjoyed being in here. Seeing the stone cell and imagining St. Francis here. He has a very soft spot for old 'Frank'..and we have several versions of the famous animal & bird loving Saint in our garden at home.
  I enjoyed it, too. I loved the total quietness of the surroundings. All we could hear were sounds of nature.
  As it should be...

A contemplative Mr. J

A stone bridge leads to the veg garden.

We walked down the canyon a ways, and back up to see this view..
The new spring growth on the willow trees is so pretty.

  We spent time in various areas, but never saw another person. Even in the tiny gift shop. There was an 'honor system' box to put euros in, if you wanted something. Johnny picked out a few little things to bring home. 
  We could hear soft voices in the distance, but didn't see anyone. Maybe it was prayer time for the residents? There are a few still here. It was cool. We just wandered around, enjoying the ambiance and taking pictures...

A rather modern take on St. Francis.
I like the birdies...

Just one more thing I want for my garden.

The 'new' chapel, constructed by Capucin monks around 1630.

  A morning very well spent, I must say. I would return, but later in the season. I'd like to see the gardens when they are really happening. 

Time to say arrivederci, for now….
But we'll be back.

  As we drove back along the canyon, I had Johnny pull over to take a photo (below) from across the way. You can just see Le Celle there, in the middle. It's tucked in below the large stand of trees. 
  Like I said…you hardly know it's there, if you don't know where to look.
  I bet that's just how they wanted it.

Le Celle…It's almost not even there….

Here's more information about this very special place:

Le Celle

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Few Garden Moments (and a small rant) June 2015

  Back in the day, even though I knew better, I prided myself on the 'Big Moments' in my garden. Sure, lots of splash and color, but oh boy…did I use water. Lots of water. 

  It did look kind of awesome, though…. I must admit.

Just one of several walls of roses… now no more.

  I would rationalize my garden water use by not showering every day. When I do shower, I am frugal…ish. You know the drill if you live in California..turn the water off while you suds up, have a bucket to collect the water while you wait for it to get hot…that sort of thing.
  I mean, I try. Really. But.. I always feel guilty watering as much as I do. Even back then.
  Now it's the same drill- the water saving stuff- but on steroids.

  These days, more than half the roses are gone, and many of those that are still left are on the chopping block. To keep them looking great, it just takes too much water. 
  The keepers are the old gals. The heirloom climbers that only bloom once in the spring. These roses are champs, it seems, no matter what. They will stay. At least for now.

  So. Now I am growing things that don't ask for much. Much water, much fussing, much cutting back..Easy peasy plants.

  Can you say 'succulents'? And no big surprise to me…they can look as amazing as roses...

I can't get enough of this color combination.

Plus, the hummingbirds go nuts over the succulent blooms. Nice.

  My pal Tasha gifted me an old favorite of both of ours, a couple of weeks ago...Impatiens Balfouri, which is a reseeding annual that loves the part shade my garden has. By late summer, it will have done it's thing, and I'll pull it out. In the meantime, it will have spread seeds that will pop up next spring. If it rains, all the better. They bring lots of fresh color to the shade border, and don't ask for much.
  If it does get too dry, I'll throw some of my shower water on them!
   Along with variegated plectranthus and hellebores, the shade border looks lovely, and doesn't take much water at all.

Impatiens balfourii, here with a tuberous begonia just
starting to bloom, behind it.

   Some of my favorite 'texture' plants are in containers. These plants look beautiful together, and I water them with the water saved from the house. It's amazing how much water you can collect just waiting for it to get warm enough to do the dishes… Enough to water my potted plants once or twice a week, which is all they need.
  Again, these are pretty tough characters.

Asparagus fern and another type of begonia, also a gift from Tasha, each in it's own pot.
I just love these together.

More of the same.
The begonia blooms are a perfect shade of pink. Perfect.

  While I'm writing this, I am realizing how many very cool plants my dear pal Tasha has given me, either as cuttings, little babies, or gifts from the nursery. It just reminds me of one of the reasons why I love to garden. The 'sharing' aspect of it is so great.
  I need to keep reminding myself of this, because it's getting so easy to just say the hell with it all…sometimes. Gardens take bunches of water and work….I just want to run away…but I won't. I'm hooked. I'm a full blown junkie.
  Plus….the rewards can be pretty damn sweet. 

Thanks, Tasha. This begonia 'cutting' is about four feet tall, and growing.
Tough, too! Another one in a big container.

 A big reason why I put many of my favorites in containers..big containers mind you, is that our soil is very sandy. It doesn't hold water well. I have added enough compost, mulch, organic this and that…It helps a lot, but it's still difficult to keep things watered.
  Containers can be filled with shovels of awesomeness, and also mulched to help retain moisture.
  It seems to work for my garden space, anyway. I just keep saving up as much water as I can to use in these situations. 
  Sure, on super hot days, which are few and far between, thank god, many of these beauties suffer and wilt down. They come back, as soon as the heatwave ends. So far anyway. I just saw the new 'Mad Max' movie, and I guess all bets are off when the real shit hits the fan, drought wise.
  But, that's for another time. …..right…..? 
  I said…RIGHT? Yeah, right. We are so screwed.


  This last little garden moment is from Johnny's studio garden, which is very sunny. The red trumpet vine is just a beast…and the Iochroma, with it's purple trumpets, is another super tough dude. Together, they bring a big bang of color to a very sunny, somewhat hot area. Both get cut back pretty hard from time to time, and this just keeps them looking good.
  Since a hard frost seems like a non-starter here, we just won't worry about that….for the time being.

Another killer combo.

  It may seem like I'm ok with all this garden change, but I'm not.
  I miss my roses, clematis, foxgloves, campanula…all the lovely cottage style and super thirsty plants I adore. It's just what I have to do now in California. I save every biddy drop I can to help water at least some of my sweet garden. It's a drag, and it makes me just a little sad.

  (rant alert)
  It also makes me want to firebomb the a-holes with their huge, chemically treated, water thirsty lawns who only come here for two weeks a year to f-ing golf. On yet another huge, chemically treated, water thirsty lawn. Arrgghhhhg. 


  Think I'll go sip a glass of wine in my very pretty and small, but mighty…. and increasingly drought resistant garden.
   Oh, no. Am I going to have to give up wine? (whine)

Monday, June 1, 2015

A Couple Of Days In Florence 2015

  It's getting harder to leave Italy every year…the longer stays mean our roots are digging deeper into the soil of our adopted second home. 
  Back home for almost three weeks now, and we still find ourselves slipping into the "double-kiss" when we meet a friend on the street, or throwing out "grazie" "prego", and an occasional "mi scusi" while shopping in the local market or standing in line for coffee in the morning.
  Sigh. We miss it. It's true.
  But, hey…home in California is just fine, thank you. Could use a tad more sun, perhaps a few days of  gentle rain…It's great here, too, and I appreciate this place very much.

  Thankfully, I still have a zillion photos I can go through to keep the dream going, and several kazillion ideas for my little bloggy. 

  This evening, as I sit here in bed, I'm thinking it might be fun to head on back to Florence for awhile.

What a swell town.

  We like to spend our last couple of nights in either Florence or Rome, depending on where we fly home from. This year, it was Florence. (Coming soon…a post about a day trip to Roma!)
  The weather in Florence was stellar…very warm, but so pretty and so clear...

The Duomo is really looking fine, with all the exterior cleaning
over the past few years.

  For the first time in many years, we really didn't have a big plan of attack. There wasn't a special show we wanted to see, so we just caught up on some sights we had missed in the past, ate at some favorite spots, and found some new adventures just walking around town.
  It was pretty great, too. Nice to be relaxed…no big hurry to see this and that.

  The one place we did want to visit this time was the Brancacci Chapel, located inside the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Johnny especially wanted to see the frescoes here, which were done by various artists, including Panicale homeboy, Masolino da Panicale.

  For me, these frescoes are all about the color. I just love the sensitivity of the color and shadow. I'm the first to admit my almost complete ignorance of this work…Johnny was able to give me most of the lowdown, which is always a nice bonus, but I enjoy these excursions in my own way, taking it all in slowly with an eye for color, texture and line.

  Listening to the low hum of reverent voices is soothing, as I sit in a pew, remembering long hours spent in church as a youngster. I watch as groups large and small walk through, while Johnny takes his time to really absorb it all.
  I think my favorite aspect of these particular frescoes were the various structures that were in the background...

  We spent a good amount of time in the Chapel.

  Again, it was great to have no real plans for Florence. Art, food, wine….what can possibly be better?    Florence is a jewel, all the more beautiful to enjoy at a snails pace. Lesson learned!

  While deciding where to head next, we popped by I Due Fratellini for a quick glass of wine. This is a place we'll stop by when we are in the area. No tables or chairs, it's just a curbside wine and panini place. It's perfect for a hit and run glass of reasonably priced wine.

Always some good people watching here, too...

  All this stop made we want was an actual "sit-down"…my feet were beginning to speak out, and it was getting warm. Time for a more serious rest..

  Of course, that meant heading across the Arno to a new favorite, Le Volpi e L'uva.
  We love this tiny, off the main drag, friendly and tasty enoteca/cafe. What the folks behind the bar do with a couple of toaster ovens and a couple of cutting boards,'s outstanding. (thanks for the tip last year, Elizabeth & James..still love it!)

  We were happy to sit inside at the bar, as it was getting uncomfortably warm for us outside. Plus, watching the action is more than half the fun. We ended up going twice, once each day we were there. Why not? So many tasty crostone (open faced sandwiches) and salads to try.

Perfect to share with some good olive oil and garlic bruschetta..

    What a great spot to kill some time while chatting to strangers and watching the world go by. It was wonderful to relax, eat and drink…just chill for a spell. 
  We found out that the BBC was coming by the following day to do an onsite interview featuring one of the women who work there. She would be explaining why Chianti wines are so important, and just how they pair with different dishes. We had fun listening to their "practice" interview, and became part of the scene very quickly, as they all wanted our opinion on how it came across.
  Lots of laughs, teasing and nerves, too! We hope it all went well with the actual BBC crew the next day. I need to look for the video online…

  With the late afternoon ahead of us, we wandered back over the Arno to make a stop into the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, another must see that we hadn't yet seen. It is a Renaissance palace, built between 1444 and 1448. 
  On it's own, the building is impressive. It's known for it's rusticated stone walls, and inner courtyard, along with some outstanding interior frescoes, most notably by Benozzo Gozzoli.

  Ok, truth be told…this is all info I just gleaned off Google. 
  Sure, I enjoyed it, and the courtyard with all it's potted lemon trees is really beautiful….but…I was so happy that they were featuring some contemporary art in various rooms the day we were there.
  Paintings, photos, a couple of interesting installation works…all great to see. My favorite, though, was the outside garden room which had an amazing show of ceramic work by Marcello Fantoni.

One cool Italian dude.

  The space itself was a work of art, and how sweet to be the only visitors! It was a decent sized show, with lots of variety of form and color. 
  A seriously nice treat. I wasn't too familiar with his story, but had seen some of his ceramics while at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
  Me like, very much.


Hard to keep my hands off this work!


Classic Mid-Century Modern, Italian style.

  Well, that show was a real highlight for me. 

  Now, what's for dinner? 

  I'll tell you, I'm so glad I had made reservations for dinner at 5eCinque, another favorite spot, in the delightfully wacky Piazza della Passera. This little piazza has a fantastic vegetarian restaurant, a couple of other great restaurants, an artisan gelateria, and a small but very mighty bar.
  We go for all these reasons. A fun, fun place to spend a warm evening. Added bonus…benches all around, to make it all the better to hang out. It's just over the Arno, on the way to the much larger Piazza Santo Spirito.

  So, 5eCinque, which I have written about before, is the vegetarian place. Small, with small tables…I recommend reservations…especially for the two tables outside. 
  They set up a table for us on the sidewalk, bless their hearts, since the others were booked. I hadn't reserved for outside, not knowing if it would be too cool, but it was lovely, so they made it work. Grazie!!

We have sat at this table on past visits..It's just fine!

A menu sample from Trip Advisor…
I forgot to take a photo myself, but you get the idea..

  We were ready for something different, and that's what we went for. We both ordered different salads, which are always so good here.

Oh, yum…lots of toasty crunches on top..sunflower and sesame seeds,
as well as radishes and pumpkin seeds...

Don't know where they are coming from, but we were so happy
to taste a perfectly ripe avocado… Johnny's choice.

Also Johnny's choice…Rice with vegetables.
Not risotto, but with a more Indian spice profile.

Bad, bad photo…Good, good risotto with saffron.
Simple and tasty.

  We opted out on dessert, which isn't all that strange for Johnny and I. I know we didn't have gelato…I would have remembered. Guess we called it a night and moseyed on back to the hotel. 

  Travel is exhausting, even when you aren't really doing anything.

  Next morning we were awake early and ready to head over to the famous Mercato Centrale. This is always a must do, because I bring back loads of dried porcini to give as gifts to friends and family.
  Big changes this year, though! I had read that they opened the upper floor to house a "food court" type space, but wasn't prepared for just how modern it would be.

  There were a bunch of purveyors, some making the jump from food truck status, some just smaller versions of nearby restaurants. Tables are in the center, with stalls of deliciousness all around. The idea being..grab something yummy, get yourself a glass of wine, artisan beer, or juice, and sit down to enjoy.

  I didn't take lots of photos, because it was very early in the day, and not much was going on yet.   Naturally, we enjoyed some proseco with the best cheesy bread sticks I've ever had. Breakfast of Champions! Well, it was like… 11:00 or so…
  Anyway, you can get an idea here. It's going to be fantastic, I imagine, once people get used to the idea of it all. It sure smells good in the morning, as all the stalls are making magic in the kitchens.

  Oh, and BTW…We were both knocked out by the Daniel Buren installation here! Having just experienced his mind blowing work in San Gimignano earlier in our trip, this was a most perfect last day surprise.

The Daniel Buren pieces are the small red/white and blue/white striped boxes
all above the main area…so cool!

It's all about the scale of it..

  Yes, I know…I should have more shots of the foodie end of the place, but that's what the next visit will be for!

  Afterwards, we strolled through all the market area, and then just took our time walking around Florence. It was great…I know we made it back across the least twice…I wanted to head way up above for a shot of the city at sunset time. That would be my first photo of this particular post.

  We enjoyed another visit, this time lunch, at Le Volpi e L'uva, we checked out an antiques market in Piazza Santo Spirito, had wine behind the Duomo, did the requisite shopping at Zecchi, (the art supply shop of Johnny's dreams)….We really did so much, considering we had no big plans.
  That's what I love about having no big plans, now that I think about it.
  We just cruised around….

We found a new spot to have a glass of wine….
Ummm…do you all get the general theme here?

Discovered this interesting shot of the Duomo….

Took a fun "Mirror Shot"….

Saw more art….

Explored an area we hadn't been to before….
What a great visit to Florence!

  Naturally, we had one more dinner in Italy, last night and all that.

  We had promised our local pals and owners of Carmel's own La Balena, Anna & Emanuele Bartolini, that we would say "ciao" to their pal, Nicolo, at one of our favorite places in Florence, Coquinarius.
  We planned to have our "last meal" there anyway, so what a special treat to make this new connection so far from home.

See that very sad looking gal on the left?
That would be me.

  Sure, I was sad…who wouldn't be, eh? It was the last night of two magical months in Umbria…in Italy…sigh. Tough to leave, my friends.
  Ok, I know…I'm so lucky to get to…blah, blah,'s still TOUGH! 
  That's all.

  The  good wine and great food helped….

I am officially in love with Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
This was recommended by dear Nicolo, and we loved it.

  I know we split an appetizer and ended with sharing a salad, but I guess the photos were not too good, because I deleted them at some point. Also deleted, Johnny's very good artichoke and potato torta, like a big slice of savory pie.
  I did manage to save one nice shot of my pasta, which was two large ravioli, filled with winter squash and served with a buffalo mozzarella sauce. No kidding. It rocked my sad little world. Put a happy smile where there had been a frown.

We ate and ate and ate.
And drank some, too. Again, last night and all that.

  A spectacular last dinner in Florence. Thanks Nicolo! Thanks, Coquinarius! Thanks dudes in the kitchen!

Dudes from the kitchen, taking a little smoke break.

  We said our goodbyes as we walked across the River Arno, checking it out and holding it all close.
  We'll be back soon, I just know it.

  Until next time…Buona Notte, Firenze!!