Autumn in the air and the garden

October 17, 2010 

If you've had the good fortune to visit the annual Philadelphia Flower Show, you'll understand that my ears perked up when I heard that the September meeting of the Hilton Head Island Avid Gardeners would feature a floral designer who'd exhibited at the show for three consecutive years.

Maggie Engstrom, previously an instructor at American School of Floral Design in Madison, N.J., can now be found at Sweet Bay, her shop on Bay Street in Beaufort. Engstrom has embraced the nature she has found in the Lowcountry, incorporating the feel of it as well as the materials found here.

"Nature is wonderful, but artificial can be fun, too," she said as she selected a wooden bowl for her first arrangement. "Inspired by our hurricane season, I'm choosing an artificial branch to resemble deer antlers to make the forest floor. When you work with artificial materials, you need to build up your strength with large flowers in the center; I'm using three brown magnolia flowers and adding natural plant pods and bird feathers found on the forest floor."

By the end of the hour, Engstrom had produced seven highly decorative and unusual floral pieces. One used a technique called "tanting" that she learned in Germany, another used a coal bucket that was filled with orange lilies, carnations and roses. The audience favorite was the flower garden in a closed-lid wooden box. Floral tips to take home included the linear, "Straight lines are masculine, curved lines are feminine; curved, soft lines are more welcoming in your home than straight lines; when beginning an arrangement, work with larger flowers first and do all of one variety, then add the next larger and so on."

Maggie Engstrom is presently plotting the "over the top" holiday décor in one of the homes chosen for this year's Tour of Homes on Nov. 22 on Lady's Island.

She plans to start with curb appeal, then move indoors to decorate each room, with the Christmas tree in the family room reflecting the homeowner's love of nature. The ornaments are white snowy owls.

AUTUMN HARVEST DAYS

While I wait for the leaves to change color, I'll be harvesting flowers and leaves from the herb garden. These will be picked in the morning, then dried. This takes three to four days when they are spread out on a towel on the back window of the car. The traditional bouquet garni is made with one teaspoon each of marjoram, basil, thyme and savory, one large bay leaf and four black pepper corns. These are mixed, put in small muslin bags and tied with string. The Betsy boquet garni has it all. To the above recipe we add two sprigs of Southern tarragon (Mexican marigold; Tagetes lucida), one sprig of pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), a sprig of lavender, and a 1-inch sprig of rosemary. Both mixes make great salt substitutes for cooked dishes.

When you're eating out and dipping your hot bread in flavored oil from the bottle on the table, do you wonder what created the flavor and why some oils are tastier than others? These two recipes are favorites in our house. Roast five chili peppers and five large garlic cloves in a hot oven for 10 minutes, place in a bottle with 1 teaspoon black peppercorns and the peel from half a lemon. Fill with 1 <00BD> cups of light olive oil. To make an oil for pizza: add to the above recipe a generous sprig of fresh thyme and rosemary. Bottle or jar and refrigerate the oil for up to one week. To store for longer periods, strain out the herbs and spices and freeze the oil. The oils I make never get to the freezer; besides the bread dipping they are used as a drizzle over fresh tomatoes, brushed on meats and fish before grilling or broiling, and tossed with paSTA.

AUTUMN PLANTING DAYS

The first cool spell brings us to the garden and the resulting overexertion that can lead to back, leg and arm strain and soreness. To alleviate these arthritic symptoms, herbalists turn to turmeric that can be taken as food or in tea. I add it in powdered form to the dried herb salt substitute that I use to flavor most foods.

Other herbs that have anti-inflammatory qualities are ginger, delicious in tetu kola that enhances circulation and can be taken in tea or capsule; and cayenne, a pain-relieving herb that in tomato juice makes a delicious virgin Bloody Mary. Cayenne peppers and gotu kola are easy to grow here, although I've discovered why our newly born fawns are cavorting around the yard; they're eating the gotu kola crop.

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