Inspired by Charleston: A Flower Box Project

The Mister threw down the gauntlet this past weekend: Create a flower box for our tiny and underwhelming side porch. I willingly accepted his challenge. I knew I'd draw my inspiration from the amazing flower boxes and container plantings I'd seen in Charleston a few years ago and several times this past year as well.

Charleston window box
One of my inspirations
We headed to Lowe's where we found a suitable container that would fit over the porch rail. We agreed that because our house is quite shaded and we weren't sure of flower box success, we didn't want to spend a lot on something custom. Thankfully, we found a rectangular box that looks as if it's been painted flat black. It's actually molded plastic, of course, but my hope is that once plants are trailing over the sides, no one will notice its plasticity. We also purchased three miniature boxwoods as I knew that's what I wanted as the foundation planting of the box.

caladium in Charleston flower box
Another inspiration
The next morning I headed to a locally owned nursery to see what was available for shade plantings. Quite a bit, actually. Although I longed to wander all eight acres of shrubs, trees, water garden features, and perennial plants, I tried to stay in the annuals department.

bedding annuals

So many colors tempted me, but I decided to keep it pretty simple with green, white, and the smallest bits of deep, bluish pink.
boxwood and caladium

I ended up with boxwoods, caladiums, purplish wishbone flower, and white torenia, all recommended for shade or part shade. I kept in mind the recommendation to choose a filler (boxwood and wishbone flower), a thriller (caladium), and a spiller (torenia).
planting directions

My total spent on plants was about $40.

flower box in progress

First, of course, I filled the container with potting soil and then placed the boxwoods in the center toward the back.

flower box with boxwood and caladium
Then, the caladiums, which I kind of angled slightly, so they would spill over the edge of the box.

flower box with green plants

Then, I stuffed in the smaller plants, making sure to cover their roots with potting soil. The Mister drilled holes in the bottom of the flower box so that the plants could drain easily.

I am hopeful that it won't take long for the torenia and the wishbone flower to grow and trail and spill over the front. Although it was fun, making a Charleston-style flower box was harder than I'd thought, and I welcome any tips or advice on making it look a bit more posh. Maybe some ivy? Or do I just need to be patient?!

Let me know your thoughts!

A Day in the Country, Downton Abbey Style

Although our destination was only an hour's drive away, we began planning months ago to make a trip to the incomparable Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. We juggled work schedules, volunteer commitments, care for aging parents, and carpools to make this day trip happen. Finally, after weeks of waiting and 10 days of downpours, we hopped in BK's car and headed north to visit America's largest home, the majestic Biltmore.

Biltmore House and Garden
source: Biltmore Estate
We had all visited before; most of us had been several times. This remarkable 250-room house is known for its incredible furnishings, artwork, winery, and gardens. Built over six years' time, beginning in 1889, this French Renaissance chateau sits amid 8,000 acres of formal and informal gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park in New York City.

Here we are, ready to tour the house and to see the exhibition Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times, which features 45 costumes from the television series Downton Abbey.

loggia source: Biltmore Estate
view from Biltmore
Appalachian spring from the loggia of Biltmore House
Remarkably, thanks to the brilliant siting of the house by Olmsted and the thoughtful and painstaking stewardship of the Vanderbilt descendants in cooperation with the city of Asheville, the view shed surrounding the Biltmore House remains undisturbed, making it seem as if you have truly traveled back in time.

Dowager costume

We had about a half hour to spend before our timed entry into the house, so, of course, we perused the wares in the gift shop, where we spotted our first Downton costume--a dress worn by Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham. If you're a fan of the show, you've no doubt noticed that the Dowager Countess usually wears some shade of violet, which I wrongly assumed was an affectation of hers because of her name. Instead, she wears violet because she continues to mourn her late husband and her family members who were lost when the Titanic sank. 

Biltmore Estate doesn't allow photography inside the house itself, so the pictures that follow are all courtesy of the Biltmore website.

costumes at Biltmore

The exhibition was quite well done, I thought. The simple mannequins were placed in rooms much like those in Highclere Castle, where the "upstairs" portion of the series is filmed in England. Here, sisters Mary and Edith wear styles that reflect the latest trends, including a handbag for Lady Mary and for Lady Edith, a coat dress that reflects the influence of the Arts & Crafts movement in England.

Here, Lady Mary's spectacular beaded firework gown contrasts with her maid Anna's pinafore.

Downton Abbey costumes

In the upper left, Mrs. Hughes's silk dress signifies her authority over the house and contrasts with the more simple maid's costume. In the lower right, a footman (Barrow, Jimmy, Alfred, et al) stands near a valet (Mr. Bates) with protective apron and sleeves. The footmen were known as the "peacocks" of the great houses.

Downton Abbey costumes

Here's a driving uniform for Tom Branson before he was a member of the family. To the right is a belted dress for the lovely and thoughtful Sybil.

After about two hours in the house, which included a thrilling and secret elevator ride because sometimes I'm just at the right place at the right time, we had a tasty lunch at the Stable Cafe and then headed out to see the gardens.

Biltmore conservatory
conservatory: image Biltmore Estate
Azaleas, wisteria, tulips, irises, and daffodils were all blooming. Unfortunately, the tulips had taken quite a beating by the rain and weren't really looking their best. This photo from the Biltmore website shows the walled garden in its glory.

tulips Biltmore
source: Biltmore Estate

Biltmore formal garden

All the formal gardens and the rambling, woodland gardens were beautiful. I hope to visit again in a month or so with the Mister to see the roses.

Inside the conservatory, we were rewarded with stunning displays of orchids grown for the house.

Biltmore orchids

While on our way back to the real world, we drove past fields that were blooming vibrant yellow.

canola field Biltmore

We had no idea what it might be. Turns out, that vibrant yellow is the blossom of the canola plant.

And, now I wish you all a wonderful weekend.


Whatever that is.

Taste of Paris: Salade aux Chevre Chaud

"It's in my 'misser,'" Middle would say whenever he was wistful after a particularly fun experience. After a family outing, holiday, or vacation, we'd notice that he'd be just a little bit blue, and inevitably when we asked him what was wrong, he'd answer something along the lines of, "I've got the mountains in my misser." Sometimes, he'd have a specific person in his misser. "Poppy's in my misser," for instance. Of course, we added "misser" to our family lexicon. Now we say things like, "Is there any of that caramel cake left? It's in my misser."

Paris cafe

Lately, Paris has been in my misser. I spent a week there this past September. It was for work, but it sure didn't seem like work. I was there with a dozen members of our museum's collectors group, and, of course, we had incredible access to museums. We also visited a number of private collections in Paris apartments and homes. And we had lots of free time for delicious dining, shopping, strolling, and even antiquing at Marché Vernaison. 

Paris cafe

So, with Paris in my misser this week, I decided I'd try my hand at a little French cuisine. One of my favorite lunches in Paris was the classic Salade aux Chevre Chaud or arugula with warm goat cheese. Simple and incredibly delicious.

baguette slices

Start with a fresh baguette, and slice it on the diagonal.

baguette slices with goat cheese

Brush the tops of the slices with olive oil and top with a slice or crumbles of goat cheese. 

 Then sprinkle lightly with herbs de Provence or dried rosemary.

baguette slices with olive oil

Bake at 400 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. While the baguette slices are toasting, fill your plate with about a cup and a half of washed and dried arugula, or mixed baby greens. For dressing, I mixed olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and fresh-squeezed lemon juice in equal parts to make about a half cup of liquid, plenty for four salads. Then, I added a couple of shakes of salt and pepper and whisked it all together. Lightly dress the greens and then top with three or four goat cheese toasts.

salade aux chevre chaud

For the final and delicious touch, drizzle the bread lightly with honey. I added blackberries because I had them on hand, but toasted walnuts would be the traditional French touch.

Salade aux chevre chaud would make a perfect first course for a company meal, but it's easily manageable for a family supper or girlfriend lunch. I could eat this every day, and since the Mister gave it a 9.5, I think I'll be serving it a lot this season and remembering Paris.

Do you have any favorite French foods?

Ducks and Chicks and Geese . . . and Our Easter Table

When the children were little, we celebrated almost every holiday with cut-out sugar cookies. Not surprisingly Big, Middle, and Little have outgrown the thrill of mixing and rolling, cutting and baking, and decorating, although they still seem pretty excited with the eating. Me? I still like the whole process, and this year I thought why not put some homemade cookies in our Easter baskets rather than lots of tiny bites of foil-wrapped chocolate?'

rolling pin

I have a hodgepodge collection of cookie cutters that I've accumulated over the years. I've found them in fancy cooking stores, antiques shops, and thrift stores. And I'm always on the lookout for something a bit unusual.

I've experimented with several different cookie dough recipes, but my current favorite is this one from Williams Sonoma. It has a tiny bit of cardamom, which adds a slight lemon flavor. Also, cookies made with this dough seem to hold their shape really well.

My baking secret is this old rolling pin. Carved from a single piece of poplar wood and boasting only one handle, this rolling pin was made around 1880 for my great grandmother who gave it to her daughter, my Nannie. I suppose it has rolled out hundreds of biscuits and yeasty angel rolls. If our house were on fire, I would do my best to save it.

cut out cookies

Rolling and cutting somehow seems therapeutic after a day in the office.

Sugar and butter and vanilla scent the air in a way that soothes the soul.

baked sugar cookies

Chicks and bunnies and geese line up in an orderly way that daily demands seldom do.

baked sugar cookies

And then there's frosting!

iced sugar cookies

My obsession with robin's egg blue continues. I sprinkled these little eggs with cocoa in hopes of getting an edible speckle or two.

frosted Easter cookies

I decided to put them on my Nannie's ironstone cake stand on the sideboard.

iced Easter cookies

I hope there are some left for Easter Day! Actually, to be sure everyone had a few cookies of his or her own, I put a goose, a chick and two eggs in a cellophane treat bag for each place setting.

Easter cookies

Here's a preview of our Easter table, featuring, of course, blue and white.

blue and white table setting

blue and white table setting

I bet I'm not the only one who hears the overture to Downton Abbey in her head when she sets the table.

robin's egg blue egg

blue and white table setting

The Mister stopped on his way home from work Friday night to pick up flowers for me at Trader Joe's. He did a great job!

blue and white table setting

He texted me six still pictures and two videos of the flowers on offer. Two more phone calls and one face time call were all that was needed for me to place my order. (Seriously, he's gooder'n ary angel.)

flowers in blue and white cache pots

White tulips

blue and white table

A fun little tradition that the Mister and I started years ago is adding these vintage Easter cards to everyone's place setting. The illustrations are so dear, if a bit treacly.

vintage Easter card

We take turns trying to decipher the handwriting. All of the cards are postmarked 1911 or 1912.  Miss Ella Powers sent a short note to Mrs Ray Bowles, saying Dear Friend, I hope you are feeling better and will have a nice Easter.

vintage Easter card

EHR wrote to Ma and Pa, saying My belt is all right and looks fine. The hat came this morning and looks fine. I am having a fine time. With love, EHR.  Well, good to know everything's fine. I, for one, would love to see the hat.

My favorite reads, Friend Orrie, I hope you enjoy Easter as well as a year ago. Just think where we were a year ago. They are very busy here now preparing for the show. Sincerely yours, MOS  

Rather mysterious, I think.

Even more mysterious is God's great love for us. I pray that you celebrate that love with joy this Easter!

He is risen, indeed!

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