The sound, sight, and taste of Island gardens in winter


Working late in the garden I looked up, prompted by the cawing of crows and the sound of their wings in the chilly clear air. My eyes stirred to a sight similar to one I saw every winter during my childhood, on into my early thirties.

Extensive flocks of crows used to roost on the wooded moraine that ringed our place. I often watched them as they returned at the end of the day. Calling to each other, they flocked to a mysterious common assignation, darkening the sky for minutes. In warm weather the flocks evaporated, who knew where? I used to wonder for how many winters flocks of crows had been congregating there — maybe 60 years, since the woods had crept back over Merino Hill in the wake of the Depression.

This flight was but modest compared to those enormous bygone ones, and yet I was heartened by it, for I had not seen those winter flocks here for years. It being deer season, were they flying around cleaning up gut piles in the woods?

The Winter Garden is what our eyes will be resting upon for the next three to four months. How to enrich it so that when the season has leached life and color from it, there is still visual satisfaction? Add structure: trees, evergreens, and bark interest; berried plants too, which in my garden have fruited well this year.

Now is their moment, not only to shine, but also for utility. Most of us like an arrangement of greens and berries in different spots in the house for the holidays; I like having my own to pick and choose from, as does local wildlife. Holly branches are almost clichés and the Island habitat grows so much wild “winterberry” (Ilex verticillata) that most of us know where to go to collect it. But do you know skimmia or nandina?

Skimmias have appeared in this column before. Members of the Rue family, the species are mostly low-growing broadleaf evergreens with males needed to berry the females. Think muffin for their shapes in the border or foundation planting. The elliptical leaves are clean and mid- to deep-green, contrasting beautifully with the clusters of fat red berries.

Nandina (N. domestica, also known as heavenly bamboo) is not much utilized here but could be more. There are dozens of cultivars listed in “Manual of Woody Plants” (Dirr, Stipes Publishing), but the showy panicles of berries are a feature of all, whether red-, yellow-, or white-fruited. Semi-evergreen on the Island, the foliage of many forms reddens in winter; fruit and foliage nestle alluringly in arrangements.

Venison pâté

Speaking of deer season, my venison pâté operation has been in action lately, thanks to donations of deer livers from a number of hunters. A thank-you to all for carrying around the Ziploc bags and stopping by with the livers.

While liver, not to mention pâté, is not to everyone’s taste, it certainly is to mine, and might be to others’ if it was known how relatively simple to make, and good tasting, this concoction is. With the following recipe, based on Ray’s Liver Pate, from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s “The River Cottage Cookbook,” (paperback edition: Collins, London, 2003, 446 ppg.) anyone with hunters in the family can try it for themselves. In addition to the liver, also helpful are non-metal baking dishes called terrines, or similar vessel, either enamel, ceramic, or Pyrex, and kitchen scales, with grams for this recipe as written.

“1 kg. very fresh liver, [deer] pig or calf’s

500 g. pork belly or bacon

1 onion

3-4 large cloves garlic, crushed

100 g. fresh breadcrumbs

2 Tbsp. fresh sage, chopped

a wine glass of port or brandy

a good pinch of nutmeg,

salt and freshly ground pepper

optional: 8-10 rashers of bacon for lining the dishes

“Peel any membrane from the liver and trim out any tough ventricles. Put the pork belly, onion, and liver through a [meat grinder] on the coarse plate, or process together in a food processor — but not too finely as you want your pâté to have some texture. Transfer to a bowl, add all the other ingredients, and mix well.

“Line two 1 litre ovenproof dishes or terrine dishes with the bacon (or simply grease them with a bit of butter or lard.) Divide the mixture and cover with greased foil. Place the dishes in a bain marie and cook in the centre of a low to moderate oven (170C/338F) for about 1.5 hours. The pâté is cooked when it comes away from the side of the dish and is firm to the touch.

“[Press with clean bricks and] allow to cool in the dish. Refrigerate and turn out when thoroughly chilled. The pâté is best if kept for a day or two before serving.” Serve on crackers or sliced French bread with a bit of watercress, arugula, or parsley.

Perennial Plant of the Year

The Perennial Plant Association names its 2011 Perennial Plant of the Year, Amsonia hubrichtii (pronounced hew-brick-tee-eye). A long-lived addition to perennial beds and naturalistic plantings, Amsonia hubrichtii produces starry clusters of ice-blue flowers in late spring and early summer. In fall its ferny foliage, which remains bright green over the summer, becomes an eye-riveting golden cloud.

After initial establishment, the plant naturalizes well, due to its avoidance by deer. Amsonia hubrichtii does best in open, sunny locations with only partial shade, associating well with “prairie” species, such as both cultivated and native asters, various helianthus species, ornamental grasses, goldenrods, and echinaceas. Aftercare consists merely of cutting down the passé foliage at some point before the next season’s growth begins. Propagation is by division, seed, or softwood cuttings.