Irene Virag's Garden Party

I'm Irene Virag -- a writer, a gardener, a cancer survivor. I think ideas are like plants. They need nurturing to grow. And gardeners share both. So welcome to my blog. It’s all about what’s happening in my garden and beyond.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


I’ve always had a thing for George Washington Carver, ever since I did a report on him in the third grade and discovered a kindred spirit – or at least a man who knew what was important in life.

(Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1906. U.S. Library of Congress)

I mean I was nuts about peanuts and I loved sweet potatoes. George – who talked to plants and grew up to be director of agriculture at the Tuskegee Institute – knew a thing or two about some of my favorite foods.

He invented peanut butter – that would have been enough – as well as developing more than 300 other products from the lowly legume including ink, soap, facial cream and shampoo. On top of all that he also came up with more than 100 products from sweet potatoes and another 60 from pecans.

But it wasn’t until I became a gardener that I really grew to appreciate the man who actually turned down a $100,000-a-year salary – about a million dollars by today’s count – to work for Thomas Edison. George Washington Carver almost single-handedly saved agriculture in The Land of Cotton with his revolutionary method of crop rotation.

It was a simple idea that he actually convinced southern farmers to embrace – give soil depleted by nutrient-guzzling cotton a break by growing nitrogen-producing peanuts that restored the earth.

His method worked so well that before long Dixie was drowning in peanuts. So Carver went back in his lab at Tuskegee and his got-lemons-make-lemonade approach to life gave the world peanut butter -- and linoleum.

And then he discovered that sweet potatoes and pecans could also enrich the soil. So he found ways to turn them into synthetic rubber and postage stamp glue. When he started his research, the peanut wasn't even considered a crop. But he lived long enough to see it give king cotton a run for its money, becoming the Number Two cash crop in the South by 1940.

George Washington Carver -- a slave's son who preached soil conservation and crop rotation and counted Henry Ford, Gandhi, The Crown Prince of Sweden and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as friends -- died on January 5, 1943 at the age of 78.

And so, I’ll sit down today with the seed catalogs that have been flooding my mailbox and plot out my vegetable garden. I’ll be sure to make plenty of room for my own favorite legumes – peas and beans and edamame – and I’ll remember to rotate my crops so my soil doesn’t wear out.

And then I’ll eat a peanut butter sandwich in George Washington Carver’s honor.

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Saturday, January 02, 2010


Thanks to everyone who entered my "Unplug the Holidays" contest this year. Here are my winners:

First Prize to Leeann Lavin of New Jersey,
who tweaked the holiday color scheme with lime green hypericum berries nestled among rich red roses and carnations.

Leeann also hung her stockings on the arms of silver plant cups filled with roses, carnations and seeded eucalyptus.

But she forgot to take pictures of the table designs she created with kumquats, Peruvian lilies and more hypericum berries surrounded with angel beeswax candles. I would have loved to have seen those.

And the outdoor displays Leeann designed from evergreens, birch branches and pine cones gathered from her yard were buried beneath the snow. You can't get any more natural than that.

Second Prize to Karen Siddiqi of Georgia,who wrote me this lovely note:

I'd like to enter my lampwork glass Christmas ornaments to the "Unplug the Holidays" contest. These really are "unplugged' in the sense that they were made using glass and fire. I'm still a beginner but I'll admit these made me smile not just because I managed to create something with fairly precise detail out of ooey gooey molten glass, but also because they marked the start of the Christmas season for me this year.

I was charmed by the decorations and decided that they not only qualified, but deserved a prize. I checked out Karen's blog, This Little Life of Mine, and found this entry about her handiwork:

"Yesterday, I had a late night inspiration for some ornaments and made these beads. I still have to get the ornament hangers to put on them, but I think they turned out pretty well. They're small -- maybe an inch and a half tall, but they're cute if I do say so myself! I think I'll try to make some today that are a smidge bigger, but I'm not sure if I can accomplish that in my unheated basement with a hothead torch (kind of a beginner's new one is on order!):"

And now that it's officially 2010, here's to a neater, greener new year.

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Thursday, December 31, 2009


Should last year's garden be forgot and never brought to mind . . .

Now that would be a sad state of affairs indeed. As for me, I'll toast the blooms of yesterday and pamper my orchids and plan this year's beds and heed this quote from Vita Sackville-West:

"The most noteworthy thing about gardeners is that they are always optimistic, always enterprising, and never satisfied. They always look forward to doing better than they have done before."

And so, here -- in no order of priority -- are my garden resolutions for 2010:

Buy plant labels and use them
Plant more hellebores
Create a "rain garden" in my backyard
Replace the Daphne Carol Mackie I lost years ago and still miss
Repot my orchids
Design a tree and shrub border that includes callicarpa and a Stewartia
Use sunblock religiously
Start vegetable seeds on time
Take more photographs
Build a cold frame for year-round veggies
Set up a rain barrel
Organize my garden tools
Keep up with my garden blog
Plant more alliums
Find the perfect climbing rose for my arbors
Be more conscientious about storing my dahlias
Transform my back-40 into a native plant habitat
Turn my mailbox area into a xeriscape
Weed out the clutter -- in and out of the garden
Stop and smell the roses -- the lilies too

Of course, what's really important is how many of these things I actually accomplish. But I'm a realist -- I make no promises. I'll do the best I can. It's fun just making the list.

I'm sure you have your own resolutions. I'd love to hear them.


Sunday, December 27, 2009


From the questions I’ve been getting, I can tell there’s a lot of confusion about the real reason we mulch in winter. As tempting as it is to think that we’re tucking our cherished perennials under a cozy blanket of mulch to keep them warm through the Big Chill, that’s not the case at all.

Our plants don’t need protection from the cold. After all, the perennials in our gardens are hardy for our winters – that’s why we plant them. They require the period of dormancy that comes with the cold. By the way, it generally takes two or three hard freezes for plants to become fully dormant.

No, what our plants need protection from is the cycle of freezing and thawing that temperature fluctuations bring. These shifts can heave perennials from the ground and expose their roots and crowns to fatal damage when the weather turns cold again. That’s why we actually cover perennials with mulch in winter, unlike in summer when we spread the stuff around plants, but not on them. Summer mulch is another matter. But there’s plenty of time before we have to talk about that.

So, contrary to popular belief and maybe even logic, winter mulch is not intended to insulate plants from the cold. The true meaning of winter mulch is to hold in the cold.

Which is why you shouldn’t put it down too early – if the soil’s not cold, the mulch will only foster fungus and diseases. Besides, voles and mice and other creatures may still be on the lookout for warm winter digs. And if you mulch too soon, you won’t just be providing them with housing, you’ll be providing them with food as well.

And despite last weekend’s storm, you really can’t rely on snow – AKA “the poor man’s mulch” – to take care of things. In our parts, we just don’t get that much of it anymore. I mean, think back to when you were a kid – there was snow on the ground practically all winter long. Now that the white stuff has melted, tuck in any perennials that might have pushed out of the muddy muck. But don’t be fooled, it will get cold again. So cut a few branches off your Christmas tree and lay them over the garden beds. You'll be helping your perennials chill out.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

UNPLUG THE HOLIDAYS -- There's Still Time

In the spirit of the season, I'm extending the deadline for my "Unplug the Holidays" contest. So gather your greens and deck your halls and send me a photo of your favorite homemade decoration. In honor of the new year, the deadline is now January 1, 2010.

You have until midnight to submit your entry. You should include your name, mailing address, email address, daytime phone number, a brief description and the name of the person who created the decoration, if it’s not you. Photos will be posted on my blog.

Send entries to me at or 1019 Fort Salonga Rd., Suite 10 – #302, Northport, NY 11768.

First prize is an autographed copy of my sold-out book, “Gardening on Long Island with Irene Virag.” Second prize is a copy of "Christmas on Long Island," a collection of 25 postcards featuring holiday-themed photographs.

Have fun.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

"UNPLUG THE HOLIDAYS" Contest: Enter A Photo of Your Natural Holiday Decoration

Nowadays with the economy looking like a tomato attacked by anthracnose or a peony blighted by botrytis, and everyone worrying about winding up in the red, this is more than ever a holiday season for going green.

Or going back to what comes naturally. Like boughs of holly from your own backyard. Or rose hips or pinecones or a handful of juniper instead of more and more lights and over-the-top displays that suck up enough energy to keep a generator going for weeks.

And so, I’m announcing my second annual “Unplug the Holidays” contest. It’s easy to enter. Just make a wreath, create a centerpiece, garland the mantel, adorn the arbor, arrange evergreens – indoors or outdoors, as long as it’s an all-natural, or mostly natural, decoration. It has to be homemade – you can enter a friend’s handiwork but no store-bought designs.

Send me a color photograph and I’ll pick my two favorites. Believe me, it’s not easy. Check my blog from last year to see what caught my fancy. The deadline is Dec. 21. You have until midnight to submit your entry. You should include your name, mailing address, email address, daytime phone number, a brief description and the name of the person who created the decoration, if it’s not you. Photos will be posted on my blog.

Send entries to me at or 1019 Fort Salonga Rd., Suite 10 – #302, Northport, NY 11768.

First prize is an autographed copy of my sold-out book, “Gardening on Long Island with Irene Virag.” Second prize is a copy of "Christmas on Long Island," a collection of 25 postcards featuring holiday-themed photographs.

Good Luck. And here’s to an unplugged holiday and a greener world.


Sunday, August 30, 2009


Miracles happen all the time in our gardens – just think about a seed or compost or a hyacinth bulb with its own embryo inside and the food to nourish it. Or the intricate wonder of a passion flower. So you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that we have our very own patron saint.

No it isn’t St. Francis. It’s St. Fiacre.

And today is his feast day.

We don’t make much of a fuss about him in this country, but in Europe – especially in Ireland, where he was born, and in France, where he died – there are hymns and floats and floral displays in his honor.

Which makes sense. As is the case with a lot of gardeners I know, St. Fiacre (pronounced fee-ah-kruh) was an interesting character whose life was tied to the land. He was born in Ireland late in the Sixth Century and could have followed in his father’s footsteps as a tribal chieftain. Instead, he disdained power for peace and entered a monastery on the banks of the Nore in County Kilkenny, where he immersed himself in the pursuit of what seems to me an ideal combination – gardening and the classics.

Fiacre’s fame as an herbalist and healer flourished and soon followers flocked to him. He took off for France in search of solitude and a place to sow. He found both thanks to the Bishop of Meaux, who gave him a quiet spot in the woods where the monk built a hermitage and planted a garden. But the people came and eventually, Fiacre asked the bishop for more land so he could feed the hungry and heal the sick.

As the legend goes, the bishop said Fiacre could have as much land as he could dig up in a single day. The monk prayed for guidance and the next morning all he had to do was drag his spade across the earth. Trees toppled, bushes and briers were uprooted, trenches appeared and stones fell away. Word of the miracle and the monk’s charity spread. Before long, the future saint was nurturing a hospice and monastery and a great garden in what would become Saint-Fiacre in Seine-et-Marne, a small farming village not far from Disneyland Paris.

There are other things you should know about St. Fiacre, who died in 670. It saddens me to report that he was a confirmed misogynist – even though his oratory honored the Virgin Mary. He barred females from his commune after a suspicious woman reported his unorthodox tilling technique as witchcraft. His aversion to women is believed to be the reason he’s also known as the patron saint of victims of venereal disease. Really, I’m not making this up.

And in a fitting twist, centuries later, one of his most ardent followers was Anne of Austria, the Queen of France, who credited his divine intervention with curing her husband, Louis XIII, of a life-threatening illness. In thanksgiving, she made a pilgrimage by foot to his shrine at Meaux in 1641.

Oh, he’s also the patron saint of cabbies because hackney carriages for hire in 17th century Paris piled their trade from the Hotel Saint-Fiacre. In time, the cabs were called fiacres and the saint had someone else to watch over.

But it's said that the prayerful monk who craved solitude was happiest alone, digging in his garden. I can relate. When it comes to gardening, a little help would be divine.

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