Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Call me Beldar. I am a Conehead.


The front porch cones remind me of ice cream cones.

Unintentionally, I seem to be attracted to cones for hanging baskets. The cones by the front door I found at one of the nurseries I frequent in the spring. They're two years old. I love them. They're of a significant enough scale that they are noticeable from the street and are frequently commented on by passers-by.

The back patio. Four cones of purples.

When I went to purchase planters for the trellis/arbor thingy I built by the back patio, I chose cones again, smaller this time, without thinking that I had the same (but larger) planters in the front of the house. These get planted with whatever colors I'm attracted to when I'm at the nursery. But I've been known to purchase flowering plants that match the outdoor carpet we have on the patio. Don't tell anyone though. I hate people that match their artwork to their sofa colors. This isn't too far from that.


I plant them in earth tones to coordinated with the house color.

The front porch planters usually get assorted coleus and potato vines. Stuff I know will do well and take a while before they look too bedraggled, if I haven't watered them for a while. Mostly though, they need watering each day. The greatest benefit of these planters, or any planters of annuals, is that I get to change them every year, and play with colors.

Do you have odd-shaped baskets? Any cones?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Villa Borghese Museum Gardens, Rome


Here, grass grows through the boxwood. Would you let this happen in your garden?

In 1605, Cardinal Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, turned a former vineyard, in what was then, a hill on the outskirts of Rome, into immense gardens. In the 1800s, much of the gardens were changed to English-style gardens, as was the taste then. In 1903, the gardens were given to Rome, now the Villa Borghese Gardens. This is the second largest park in Italy, and it's huge. It is accessible in many places, most notably at the top of the Spanish Steps. It is a beautiful park of fountains, lakes, forests, an equestrian center, open fields, sports complexes, carnival rides for kids, rent-able bikes for four, museums, fine hotels and more. This is not a post about that.

Maybe it looks better from upstairs in the Villa. Up close, it needs some care.

In this spectacular park sits the Museum Borghese. The museum is the Borghese family collection of 16th and 17th century sculptures, paintings and other works. It’s one of the best private collections of art ever amassed in the in the world. The museum only allows 200 people every two hours and you have to have an appointment to get in–no walk-ups. The collection is well-represented with Berninis, Carvaggios, Raphaels, and more. Also stunning is the craftsmanship of the building itself. The interior is almost completely sheathed in a great variety of spectacular marble and incredible wall and ceiling paintings. Every room is a visual delight, and that's before you notice the incredible art collection hanging throughout. This is not a post about that.

The tiny beds hardly seem worth the effort.

This post is about the rather unimpressive gardens surrounding the Villa itself. Set around this world-class, magnificent museum–of some of the greatest art ever created, inside the Villa Borghese park–one of the most impressively-landscaped parks ever created on such a scale, is a sort of lame garden that is (or was not at the time of our visit) a not-well-cared-for garden.

The statues are a nice touch, they keep the attention off the garden. Maybe I need statuary to distract attention in my garden.

Behind the Villa is a typical boxwood-hedged knot garden. Boxwood surrounding lavenders–I could have done THAT! All the boxwood had weeds growing through them (seen in the photo at top). I've visited many gardens in my travels and have been in awe of the design & unusual plant selections–and this one sort of fell flat. I'm no connoisseur of gardens or a professional garden critic / historian, but if I'm not impressed, I can't imagine what a professional gardener writer would think.

In front of the Villa are symmetrical raised beds of... grass! Seems like potential squandered.

Beside the Villa is a vegetable and herb garden that seemed overly designed with elaborate beds–more fussy design than the knot garden! There were star-shaped beds, compass rose-shaped, and less-easily-defined bed shapes, beds of just grass, and many beds filled with low growing plants that just looked a bit messy. Upon close inspection, not many were weeded. This was August–to be fair–all of Rome was on vacation. Apparently the gardeners were too.

Lots of small beds! How much access to the untrimmed bush in the middle does one need?

I'm not one to complain too much, it's still nicer than my garden (in parts) but I expected so much more. Have you ever visited a garden with which you've been underwhelmed? Not counting family, of course.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Buffalo. 104 degrees, and humid.



I have yet to ever mention much about our year-'round garden water feature, the love of my life, the hot tub. Sunday was 17 degrees, with gusting winds up to 45 mph. But my daughter and I spent a good hour (and I mean good) relaxing in the outdoor tub.

When the weather outside is frightful, so are we. Not frightful, but outside.

We'd always loved taking advantage of hot tubs in hotels in our travels, always aware that we're sitting in someone else's (hopefully over-chemicalized) bathwater. Always telling ourselves it would be great to have our own.

Deconstruction, construction, relaxation.

After having discussed owning one for 16 years, and after having built our deck, we took the plunge. The area where it sits was an enclosed porch when we bought the house. My wife, Destructor, un-built the porch when we started the deck, leaving just the base and roof. For two years, it was an barely-used landing outside the back door.

I hired a carpenter to build the tub into the existing porch / landing. It was beyond my weekend carpentry skills. Especially when there are electrical concerns, lode-bearing pillars and the like. The tub actually rests on a platform that is sitting on the ground on a bed of gravel. It took five guys just to set it in place.

The industry likes to call them "spas." Too many 1970s hot tub party connotations, I guess. Or maybe they can sell them for more money. We started reading up on the Internet to educate ourselves then went looking.

Number of seats and jets and jet positions are two of the most important options to consider.

There's a lot to choose from. The biggest factor in deciding on one for us was size. It had to fit in a specific area of the deck. After that, it was number of seats and number of, and location of, jets. We ended up with a "seven-seater" that has seats in four corners, plus three ledges between the seats. There is no way I'd ever consider having seven people in there. There are not six other people one earth I'd want to be that close to. There's my wife. There's Halle Berry. There's Charlize Theron... and I can't think of any others.

The "Spa" in better weather.

Other options included flashing disco lights, aroma therapy and sound & video systems. They were not even a consideration.

The best advice we were given was to make sure the pool is placed as near as possible to the back door. The further it's placed from the door, the less it would get used. People with romantic notions of a secluded area of the yard with a tub get quickly disillusioned the first time they have to make a mad scramble through winding paths, gravel walkways or a frigid wind-swept, large, grass lawn. Ours is one step from the back door and it gets used 3-4 times a week.

Night time is the best time for a dip, it's quiet. Well, except for the cars along busy Elmwood Ave., just a house or two away.

I also spent some time considering the lighting. There are some Moravian star candle pendants above the tub. There are rope lights hidden by a fake soffit around the exterior of the ceiling and then there's the light inside the tub. The light inside the tub can be set for different colors. Most are okay. I do not recommend the yellow light. Yellow water is not pleasant (conceptually) to bathe in.

We have a 10-year-old that has friends over, so we've established a few rules.
  • Go to the bathroom BEFORE you get in.
  • No jumping and no splashing.
  • Water stays IN the pool.
  • No getting in and out often.
And for kids and adults:
  • Bathing suits are required at all times (with the exceptions of Halle and Charlize, if they happen to stop by).
  • No glass. We're still looking for just the right plastic wine glasses.
My wife made the curtains. She was skeptical at first, and was going to sit back and watch me make them from outdoor fabric, but soon took over the job (sewing is not one of my many talents). She liked them so much, she made a 10' long picnic tablecloth from the same fabric and covered the top of our daughter's jungle gym so the whole yard now coordinates.

The tub gets used more, surprisingly, in the wintertime. Our house is a big old 1897 Dutch Colonial. It's drafty and the first floor has no interior doors–it's wide open. The cold starts in your hands and feet and travels inward from there. The tub is instant relief. And after shoveling? There's nothing better. And it has become the winter finish line for my wife and her running friends.

The summer-time view from the spa into the dining area of the deck.

The tub stays at 104 degrees in the winter. It goes down to 102 or lower for the summer. It does take some maintenance–chemicals every week or so and hosing out the filters at least once a week. It gets drained, cleaned and refilled every three months or so (the "or so" part depends on a January or February thaw). In retrospect, I wish we had a water spigot closer by. I am dependent on the hose not being frozen to clean filters and supplement the water level.

View of the tub is hidden from the driveway. The motor & pumps for the tub are accessible behind the removable panel lower, behind the tree in the rock garden.

It does bump up your electric bill a bit. The sales people will tell you about a dollar a day. It's closer to $1.30 a day for us. But it is determined by a number of factors - what temperature you keep it set for, your weather and how protected it is.

Ours has a roof over it, which protects it a bit. My neighbor has had a spa for more than 20 years and his greatest expense has been the spa covers. They get beat up by the elements. His is not covered and goes through them every six years or so.

It makes bathing-suit-attired snow angels bearable, if you're man enough. Or childish enough.

For privacy, there are the curtains, tall walls 3' above the tub about 75% of the way immediately around the tub, 6' stockade fence around the property and 10' tall vine-covered trellises in areas within view of neighbors. There's also a locking, rolling, fence gate on the driveway to ward off unexpected guests from appearing.

We do not regret the purchase one iota. It's probably the only "luxury" item we own. If you're mildly interested in getting one, don't spend 16 years deciding.

A spa, or the expense, or the maintenance is not everyone's cup of tea, some people just find them icky. Do you have a hot tub/spa? What's your experience? Do you want one?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Brussels Christmas Market Carousel




There's nothing like the Kerstmarkt in Brussels, Belgium, to put you in a holiday mood. Every year from the end of November to the end of December in Place Sainte Catherine, a Christmas festival/market is set up. The most fantastical thing (after the food) to me is the carousel (called the Magic Roundabout). There's also a smaller carousel named the D'Andrea Roundabout. Two years ago, we spent the time between Christmas and New Years in Brussels, staying in a hotel smack dab in the middle of the Christmas Market.

We took our daughter, and as much as we enjoyed the festival, she was more excited to swim in the hotel pool - swimming is not something she gets to do much of in Buffalo in December. Of course, with her body clock out of whack, the excitement of a carnival for the day, followed by swimming, she would fall asleep in the middle of dinner each night. Then she'd be up a the crack of dawn the next day, beginning the cycle again.

There are stalls throughout the market selling everything from hand-carved trinkets to reindeer pelts. We spent our money on edible delights - sausages, mushrooms and glühwein (red wine, heated and spiced with cinnamon sticks, vanilla, cloves, citrus & sugar - basically a mulled wine). Glühwein wine only tastes good when you're walking around outdoors looking at Christmas-y things. If you're drinking it in your kitchen, in nice weather, it's horrible, horrible stuff.

Anyway, the carousels are jewels. They are the type of carousel Jules Verne would have designed, had he been a carousel designer. Actually, they were designed by a theater company. There are hot air balloons, rockets, biplanes, cruise liners, dragons, dinosaurs, submarines, snails, pterodactyls, sailboats, winged horses, lizards, sea horses, ostriches, musical instruments and more.

Some move up and down, some go sideways - the rocket goes through a hole in the top of the carousel (there's always a long line for that one). They only allowed rides to kids, unfortunately.

There are activities for adults though. There's a large ice skating rink, and there is a Ferris Wheel. I'm told this year that the Ferris Wheel has glass-enclosed seats. When we rode it two years ago, we were better able to appreciate the wind-chill factor in the exposed seats. There are also brass bands, ice sculptures, DJs and art exhibits.

Just over a block or two is the Grand Platz, with its immense Christmas tree, choirs, life-size creche and light show illuminating the gorgeous, ornate buildings forming the square.

If you ever have the chance to get to Brussels anytime in December - do it! This has nothing to do with gardening. But it's Christmastime and I thought I'd share.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ornamental Christmas tree


Instead of picking up some tchotchkey on our trips, every time we travel, we pick up a Christmas ornament. Rather than the clutter of items collected from travels throughout the house, we reminisce each year when we decorate our tree. We're the only people we know that can go to Europe for a week and come back with only a $7 ornament to declare.

To use this blog as one of its intended purposes - to make a personal record of something relevant to me - I have here a visual list of the ornaments we've collected to date. This is more a formal record for our daughter, than it is for you, but hope you enjoy anyway.

Some trips we never found an ornament. Some are not ornaments. Some places we could not find any and purchased magnets, key chains and other "found" objects - like a sommelier's cup from France - we use for ornaments.

Try and guess where they're from before you read the caption. For many it is obvious where they came from. For others, they'll make sense when you see where they came from.


Michigan and Mexico '06


Oslo, Norway '90 and Zermatt, Switzerland '89


Stockholm, Sweden '07 and French Guadeloupe '06 (contains nutmeg potpourri )


Paris, France '07 and Amagansett, NY '99


Key West, FL '06 and Mainz, Germany '94


Dutch St.Maarten '96 and Amsterdam, Holland


Houston, TX '85 and St. Thomas, USVI '05


Cologne, Germany '08 and Billy Bones/Norman Island


Geneva, Switzerland '89 and Anchorage, Alaska '99


Hamburg, Germany '06 and Provence, France


Shannon, Ireland and Aruba, Lesser Antilles '07


Nassau, Bahamas '08 and Cancun, Mexico '91


Waterford, Ireland and Paris, France '06


Bruges, Belgium '00 and Geneva, Switzerland '99


St Augustine, FL '95 and Stockholm, Sweden '07


San Juan, Puerto Rico '99 and Bar Harbor, Maine '95


New Orleans, LA '91 and Taliesin/Spring Green WI '99


Stowe, VT '05 and Key West, FL '06


Vatican City, Italy '08 and Disney/Orlando FL '00


Santa Fe, AZ '03 (we went horseback riding) and Antigua, BVI '05


Ben & Jerry's/Waterbury, VT '05 and Dusseldorf, Germany '00


Sedona, AZ '97 and Edinburgh, Scotland '06



Burgundy, France and Dutch St. Maarten '05


Windjammer (not sure what year, we've been on 12 of them!) and Virgin Gorda, BVI '98


St. Johns, USVI and Savannah, GA '04


Venice, Italy and San Francisco, CA '90


Antigua, BVI '06 and Bruges, Belgium '08


Burgundy, France '96 (a sommelier's cup from a winery visit) and Germany '94


Vatican City, Italy '00 and Paris, France '04



Honduras/Belize '99 and Amsterdam, Holland


Curacao, Netherlands Antilles '06 and Zermatt, Switzerland '89 (our honeymoon)


Dublin, Ireland and San Antonio, TX '91


Tel Aviv, Israel '06 and Washington, D.C. '08


Liberty Island, NY '08 and St. Kitts, West Indies '00


Rome, Italy and Cancun, Mexico '03


Amagansett, NY

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