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In a bucolic setting, along a less traveled road, standing steady against modern housing sits an 1847 historic home. It is surrounded by an equally historic small farm where one can step back in time in the potager and vegetable gardens, learn of newly introduced produce, rediscover old garden favorites , and learn that what you thought to be a weed, purslane, is really a herb rich in omega 3 fatty acids as well vitamins.

So it was, in a heavenly spot called Country Garden Cuisine, which is owned and operated by Penny Newkirk, that I took a local park district day trip with my friend Sharon and a busload of other good souls.

Country Garden Cuisine was a life-long dream of Penny. As she sold her culinary shop in nearby St. Charles, a nearby convent came to the point in DSCN9558time when they needed to close their doors. When they learned of Penny’s interest in their house and that she wanted to open a culinary school, the deal was sealed, the house was moved to a historic farmstead that had a 1860s barn and outbuildings, and her dream became a reality.

Some years ago, I read about Country Garden Cuisine in a house and garden style magazine. It was a lovely article, but, it was the name that popped out at me. You see, Penny and I went to the same university and managed to land on the same dormitory floor. Both of us being Penny’s, and Pennys being hard to find, we struck up a friendship. That friendship eventually became one of yearly Christmas cards, a few visits, and eventually time and space did what it often does in life, widening the tide of contact. When I saw the article, I cut it out, my heart went pit-a-pat, and I vowed to self to try to contact her and see her school.

Of course, more years went by until one day my friend Roz mentioned, then made happen a field trip for our garden club out to Penny’s school and I finally was able to see her and her wonderful farm. Recently, my friend Sharon mentioned a trip to Country Garden Cuisine and thought I might like signing up for it. I did.

On Wednesday, I was fortunate to visit Country Garden Cuisine again. Penny demonstrated to the group of women in attendance how to make appetizers; grapes covered in Roquefort cheese and a delicious kale pesto, which eventually went into the squash “bowl”, just brought in from the garden.

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We took a stroll around the herb and vegetable gardens, “oohed” and “ahed” over the sunflowers and zinnias, that are excellent pollinator attractors in the gardens, and took in the scent of the many herbs that abounded, even as the season ends. The squashes and pumpkins are coming to harvest and, oh, dare I tell you of the treat we were directed to? Yes. Yes, I will, for it is too good to keep to oneself. At the end of the vegetable garden was a large bed of raspberry bushes, their tempting red heads beckoning us to come and eat up a handful of sunshine. Joy supreme.

Then, time for lunch, we wandered back in where Penny demonstrated and prepared a raw beet salad and quinoa pilaf that would accompany a pork tenderloin (topped with a peach salsa). We ate in the dining and sitting rooms of the old and welcoming house.

Food, history. and connections with the past linking to the present. A moveable feast.

This is actually a Kobocha squash, just about ready to pick from the garden.

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As summer begins her slow bend into fall, her riotous colors fade to more subdued tones. Tree frogs begin their nightly chorus, while crickets accompany them on their strings and I look to one of the garden’s later season blooms for some visual distraction before Autumn’s splendor.

The August Lily really isn’t a lily at all. It is a member of the hosta family; Hosta plantaginea. It is a late season show stopper, both for its exotic beauty and its seductive scent.

The ideal location for an August Lily is near a window or door, or along a well-worn path, for there is such a sweet fragrance as one’s clothes brush against this plant and its scent drifts past an open window or ousidet a door.

DSCN9422This August Lily sits quietly in a corner of the front border, hugging a coveted place of honor, waiting for me to open the front door and enjoy its sweet scent on a late summer’s night. Other August lilies sit along the arbor, where they wait for brief interludes after I’ve been working in the prairie garden or the arbor’s adjacent shade garden.

Like many white flowers, the August Lily’s scent grows strongest at night, which also makes it an attractive night pollinator. Some plants work harder at night, attracting moths and small insects who are nocturnal and spread pollen when the rest of the garden’s cast of characters is at rest . . .

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. . . and if one of the August lily’s stalks should happen to bend under the weight of its blooms, what finer spot could there be but in a vase placed in a prominent spot, such as the kitchen counter?

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A few weeks ago, I mentioned a book we received in one of the private gardens during an Open Day for the Garden Conservancy. I meant to post on it sooner, but life, in the form of young grandchildren and lots of great family time, filled my days until now.

And do, once upon a time in a garden  . . .

When we approached to ticket table at Mettawa Manor, we were given a raffle stub, along with a map of the estate and some general directions. Our delightfully informative greeter invited us to return with the stub to the ticket table when we finished our garden visit and to return it in exchange for one of the many books the estate’s owners were giving away from their personal library.

What a generous gift – and a great idea to file in my revolving folder of a mind –  perhaps to use sometime in one of my activities.

There were still many lovely books about gardening, landscaping, cooking and such when we wandered back to the table. As soon as I saw the cover of “A Glorious Harvest”, I knew it was destined to follow me home. Poor Tom. He didn’t have a chance.

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“A Glorious Harvest: Robust Recipes from the Dairy, Pasture, Orchard, and Sea”, by Henrietta Green, is filled with enticing recipes, informed text from the author, a culinary writer, and the most delectable photographs.

From entries like Paper Bag Potatoes and Roulade with Asparagus, to Tarte Tatin and Whole-wheat Bread, I am putting on weight just browsing this engaging cookbook/reference book/instruction manual on all things gastronomical. As I sit here putting words to screen, a recipe, really quite simple, called Paper Bag Potatoes, is calling to me. Perhaps I will visit a farm stand tomorrow, dig up some new potatoes from one of the bins, pull out some parchment paper, and see what aromas and tastes issue forth.

Ah, the many wonders of visiting gardens on Open Days.

Have you eaten, I mean read, any good cookbooks lately?

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There were two open gardens at the Garden Conservancy Open Days this past Sunday. One was Mettawa Manor, the other was in Highland Park.

The Highland Park home does not have the celebrity of Mettawa Manor, but, it is rich in architecture and lush in texture. The wooden bench, above, is just one of many features in this garden that were both beautiful and inspiring.

This bench also provided these two characters, who were flitting about, a quiet spot to rest their feet after oohing and ahhh-ing as they strolled about and had a delightful time talking with the homeowner.

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Since I was one of those characters, the one who talks too much, I’ll be silent now and show you a few highlights from the Highland Park garden,

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Highland Park:foxglove

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“I think I hear someone calling your name, Penny” said Tom.

“Look who it is”

How nice it was to run into Jan and Mike.

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Meanwhile, back at the Manor . . .

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Mettawa pond

Speaking of manor houses, look what’s coming to Chicago’s Driehouse Museum.

Downton Abbey (PBS) Season 1, 2010 Shown from left: Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern

Downton Abbey (PBS) Season 1, 2010
Shown from left: Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern

image from here.

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IMG_2009Sunflowers, and their kin.

They always give me the urge to glean the seeds and preserve their petals, and capture all the sunshine within them.

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The photos are my own gleanings, taken at Mettawa Manor during a recent Open Day for the Garden Conservancy. The owners of this estate graciously open their property every year for the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days.

Bill Kurtis and Donna LaPietra have a gracefully determined respect for the land and the presence of place. In the 25 or so years they have called Mettawa Manor their  home, they have reclaimed prairie and ponds, added new features and gardens, and have enriched and enhanced those already growing. They are the epitome of what garden conservation can and should be.

Folks go to Mettawa Manor in hopes of seeing Bill Kurtis. They return, again and again, because of the lure of the prairie, the stillness of the ponds, the majesty of the woods, the history of the area, the exquisite formal gardens, and even the hope of a small ice cream cone or tasting of grass-fed beef, one of Bill Kurtis’s many ventures.

You may know who Bill Kurtis is. If you don’t, you likely recognize his voice. He was a reporter for Chicago’s local CBS news for decades and is well-recognized for his investigative reporting for which he has received numerous honors, including a Peabody award. He has reported and anchored news from both coasts, as well as nationally. Bill Kurtis also reached wider audiences through programs he conceived such as “Cold Case Files”, “Investigative Reports”, “The New Explorers”,  “American Greed”, and most recently  “Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!”, for public radio on PBS. I love hearing his voice on Saturday mornings on a radio show I’ve long enjoy.

I admire Bill Kurtis and his partner in life and in business, Donna La Pietra. Ms. La Pietra has an impressive resume and career of her own and is well known for her charitable work. You might be interested in reading about them here.

It is Kurtis and La Pietra’s collaboration in the 65+ acre  Mettawa Manor estate for which I personally have my greatest admiration. At this historical country estate they have shared a vision of what it means to be good stewards of God’s good earth. They have also shared the gift of hospitality as they frequently open the garden and even their home for good causes.

I came home on Sunday renewed, anxious to inch our little prairie forward, seed by seed, and to plant more trees along the way. I have a book on harvesting to read, for the owners generously gave visitors a book from their personal gardening library. Really, dear reader, the gift of gardening and conserving comes in many forms, especially at Mettawa Manor. What more can I say?

Well, I really can say much more, but, this is already getting long in the tooth, and I did want to show you some photos of sunshine. I hope to share the book I brought home with you soon, and to share more photos of this garden and another we visited in future posts.

For now, I’ll just glean a few photos of flowers.

Black Hollyhock:Mettawa Manor Lily:Mettawa Manor

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Would you like to take a walk with me today?

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It is walk through a private garden graciously opened for the Landscape Design Council of the Garden Clubs of Illinois.

Positioned on an elegant North Shore estate, the garden sits under the watchful eye of a historical Georgian mansion. I am not part of the Landscape Design Council, but, my membership in the GCI affords me, and all our members, these rare opportunities. I am glad a few of us were able to attend.

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Fairlawn Estate is a testament to texture and structure in landscape. The several acres of property has few flowers. A potted plant here, a few roses there. It is the estate’s grand garden rooms that provide the pleasure of place where one can observe the purpose and need of good “bones” in a garden.

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I was amazed by the owner, who led the tour, and her honest respect for trees while she was still being rooted in the harsh nature of the midwest and the cruel reality of the predominance of the hard, unyielding clay underneath its soil. I was struck by her words of reality that tree roots do not have far to travel to reach clay, which eventually becomes impossible to penetrate. It is why we do not have trees that survive and thrive hundreds of years here. In spite of this reality, great care has been taken to judiciously prune and stake where need be on this elegant estate, which is brimming with structure, both living and modeled.

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It was not just the predominance of statues in this garden, but in how they were positioned and how they lent to the landscape design. I am not a landscape designer, nor a landscape architect. I am a simple gardener who has dirt under her nails and grass stains on her knees, but, a gardener no less and one who is most sincerely appreciative of the beauty of this magnificent estate,

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as well as the sense of playfulness the owner.

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I learned a great deal on this tour; about trees and structures and statues – and yet another way to garden.

I also learned quite a few things about myself. Our garden structures here on the Cutoff, aka garden art, will never be as grand or significant as the ones on this estate. Although I do ponder and place and move my “things” about to find just the right angle of the sun or the view from the arbor, the perspectives of our living room window, or the view from the road, I can be more purposeful in my placements.

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and more aware of texture and the subtleties of tone and color.

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IMG_1023Our little arbor on the prairie.

Penny’s Arbor House, aka Papa’s Treehouse (Ezra’s interpretation) is my refuge. It is where I go to sit and sip my morning cup of tea or something iced mid-afternoon to read a book or magazine, or to just BE.

When the idea for a prairie sprouted a few years ago during a conversation while sitting in the arbor, we envisioned a few grasses in this barren, sunny spot of pseudo-lawn. We imagined tall plants to catch our eyes, be welcoming to pollinators, birds, bees and other living things, and be easy to maintain.  A few yuccas were already there,  daisies that were divisions from Marilyn and a little plot of native ageratums.from Jane. They were established, but they needed some company.

The first to come was Oat Grass for Father’s Day, a Little Bluestem from a native plant sale, garden gifts, and a phone call from a friend wondering if my garden club still had a members’ plant sale in the fall. Cindy had some divisions to share. We ended up keeping her donations (I gave a monetary donation to the club instead of Cindy’s plants).

Not long after that, plants from a public garden that would be under construction needed homes. Did we want some?

Last year and this, Jan was dividing Pampas grass, Heavy Metal switchgrass, and other delights, which have quickly set down their roots in the depths of our prairie earth and are already rising to the heights of our boundless sky.

This it Tom and Thalictrum. At 6’4″, with a reach of 8′, Tom is quite tall. He is next to the plant, which is a member of the rue family. In full bloom, this variety exceeds 10′. It was one of our few purchases for this garden and was worth it for its stature and its display of wispy blooms, which lasted well over a month.

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Our little prairie is now filled and flourishing with Joe Pye Weed, bear’s breeches, butterfly weed, brown-eyed Susan, and bee balm.

Bear's BreechesBee balm:Joe Pye Weed

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Further afield is a growing patch of grasses and a compass plant, which no prairie should be without.

Compass plant

 I think I’ll have some iced tea and read a few chapters of “Little House on the Prairie”.

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