Beat the winter blues, and grays

Beautiful winter groundcover at Polly Hill Arboretum includes Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’ (above) and Helleborus hybrid ‘Brandywine; (below). — Photo by Susan Safford

A mélange of brown, grey, and tan, the island winter landscape is generally a monotonous one, and the seasons that create it seem to stretch out over-long from the “front end.”

The greenery we add to our winter landscapes is an antidote to that brown and grey monotony, especially for C. Colston Burrell, a self-described chlorophyll addict, who lives and works in the Piedmont of Virginia, a plant hardiness zone not too different from the Island’s.

Burrell is an award-winning garden writer (among other books, “Hellebores: a Comprehensive Guide,” co-authored with Judith Knott Tyler) and landscape designer. On a recent trip we visited his garden, Bird Hill, in the deciduous forest of the Blue Ridge foothills. Almost entirely sited on sloping ground and surrounded by stalag-like deer fencing, it is a morning garden with a southeastern exposure. The pale, low-angle sunlight at the time of our visit highlighted the dull gleam on foliage of hellebores (as might be expected), epimediums, and other plants of great fall and winter interest.

The Bird Hill winter garden contains 350 or so varieties of the genus Epimedium, in addition to the countless hellebores (which self-sow and hybridize freely where happy), greenery such as ferns, sedges, hardy cyclamen, asarums, and much euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae, all at ground level or just above, not to mention taller sorts of evergreen winter interest, such as winter blooming camellias, azaleas, skimmias, and other broadleaf evergreens. Some of the monumental trunks of magnificent chestnut oak and tulip poplar are clothed in vines. Based on the enormous cold season variety on display, one can only guess at the breadth and extent of the garden’s warm weather character.

Gardeners are for the most part great sharers, pleased to support the efforts of those who lack experience. While visiting gardens of greatly skilled gardeners makes one realize one’s own deficiencies, the good news is that excellence rubs off, whether through visual stimulation, advice, or even the sharing of plants.

I return home and survey my mostly brown, fallen-leaf and undergrowth base layer; my paltry array of hellebores, epimediums, cyclamen; the single specimens of cyrtonium and Christmas ferns — mentally contrasting with what I have just seen at Bird Hill — and realize once again: all comparisons stink!

Brassicas: Cooking and Specialized Equipment

There is a lot of brassica coming your way, dietetically, if you desire to eat locally: it is a cabbage-y time of year. Broccoli, Tuscan and other kales, Brussels sprouts, and cold tolerant mustard greens appear on the seasonal table. I pulled four flat-head cabbage from my vegetable garden upon return from the trip to Virginia and made them into sauerkraut at once.

Where I formerly would have used my big, Amish-made “kraut cutter” to shred the cabbage into ribbons, I now use my Portuguese “maquina de corta couves” to slice it into threads that make a fast-fermenting fine-cut sauerkraut. The addition of a fermenting crock, or gärtopf, a Christmas present from my son, has simplified my sauerkraut making for many years now.

However you can, slice or chop up the cabbage and mix with kosher or sea salt in a large bowl until it tastes slightly salty. Either massage the cabbage with the hands, or pound it in the gärtopf with a wooden implement, in order to get the juices flowing. Pack into very clean glass mason jars, gärtopf, or crock. Repeat until all the chopped cabbage is packed. The juice should cover the contents. If cabbages are dried out, it may be necessary to make up additional brine by boiling one liter of water with fifteen grams of kosher or sea salt. Cool brine and add to cover cabbage.

The gärtopf comes with two stoneware weights for keeping the contents covered with its juice or brine; an airlock water channel the weighty lid sits in; and the lid itself, notched to permit the release of fermenting gases. I recommend finding one if a steady supply of fermented vegetables is part of your menu. However, stoneware crocks and mason jars with plastic lids may also be used to make sauerkraut.

It is likely that many families have streamlined their cooking chops into a standard family tradition for the Thanksgiving meal, no deviations permitted! However, with holiday gathering taking place, many of us entertain at other meals as well during the festive time. This great cabbage salad recipe comes from a longtime gardening client and utilizes my “maquina de corta couves” perfectly.

Savoy Cabbage with Pancetta and Gorgonzola

For the Dressing:

4 tsp. white vinegar

1 bsp. Dijon mustard

2 cloves minced garlic

1/3 cup olive oil

For the Salad

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1/4 lb. pancetta, cut into 1/8 ” dice

1 small head Savoy cabbage quartered, cored and very thinly sliced

1/2 tsp pepper

1/4 lb. Gorgonzola, crumbled (option: substitute feta cheese, crumbled)

1. To make the dressing, place the vinegar, mustard, and garlic in bowl of food processor and process until creamy. Drizzle in oil in thin stream.

2. To make the salad, heat the olive oil in a medium skillet set over medium high heat. Add the pancetta, stirring occasionally, until it is crispy but not darkly browned. Drain the pancetta, reserving 3 Tbsp. of the fat left in the pan and setting the pancetta aside.

3. Transfer the 3 Tbsp. of reserved fat to a large heavy skillet set over medium heat. Add cabbage and cook until wilted, 2 to 3 minutes. Add reserved pancetta, pepper and dressing and toss and cook another minute. Add half the crumbled Gorgonzola and cook until the cheese just begins to melt. Divide the salad among four plates. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top and serve immediately.