Saturday, December 25, 2010

White Christmas

Well, who would have thunk it? Those silly weather people, who usually get us all in a tizz over nothing, were actually right this time. We woke up to a beautiful white Christmas. They say that 1989 was the last time it happened.

I have not ventured out yet. I took these photos from the windows. Outside the breakfast room window (a tiny room that was once a back porch) is where I have most of the bird feeders during the winter. Michael got me some new ones for Christmas this year so I will have to get them out next week. And speaking of feeding the birds, what is up with the huge price hikes on bird seed???

From the bedroom window -

Merry Christmas!

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Chocolate Banana Bread

More chocolate (can you tell I love it?) This one comes from This is a good way to wreck your diet!

Chocolate Banana Bread


  • 1 cup butter or margarine, softened
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 6 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly grease two 9x5 inch loaf pans.
  2. In a large bowl, cream together butter, sugar and eggs. Stir in bananas and vanilla. Sift in flour, baking soda and cocoa; mix well. Blend in sour cream and chocolate chips. Pour batter into prepared pans.
  3. Bake in preheated oven for 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into center of a loaf comes out clean.

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Triple Chocolate Buche de Noel (Yule Log)

Until a few years ago, we were heavily into Christmas - trees and decorations in every room, lights all over the place, and a grand party every year for our friends, family and co-workers. Well, it was fun while it lasted but then it got to where it was a chore and not so much fun. So we stopped - completely. We sold most of our Christmas decorations and now only have one main tree, which has not been put up for the past two years. I do miss the decorations but not the work that went into it. And I miss our big party - even though I'm not a party person and it always made me a nervous wreck. 

My favorite thing was preparing the food for the party and one dessert I always made was a yule log. I still make it every year. It is beautiful and fun to do and not as hard as you'd think. Most of all, it is quite delicious - the combination of chocolate and Kahlua is divine. I found this recipe somewhere on the Internet and thank goodness I printed it out because a recent search failed to bring it up again.


2/3 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
5 eggs
3/4 c. sugar
2 (1 ounce) squares unsweetened chocolate
2 TBS. brewed coffee
2 TBS. Kahlua
2 TBS. sugar
1/4 tsp. baking soda

4 oz. cream cheese (softened)
2 c. powdered sugar
2 TBS. butter
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 (1 ounce) square semi-sweet chocolate
1/2 - 1 c. chopped pecans (optional)

1 c. powdered sugar
4 oz. cream cheese (softened)
2/3 c. chocolate chips
1 TBS. Kahlua

Preheat oven to 350. Lightly spray a 10x15 jelly roll plan. Line with parchment. Sift flour with baking powder and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs on high for 5 minutes. Gradually add in the sugar and beat for another 2 minutes. Gently but thoroughly fold in the flour mixture.

Melt the unsweetened chocolate squares in a double boiler. In a small bowl, combine the coffee, Kahlua, 2 TBS. sugar and the baking soda. Gradually stir into the melted chocolate blending until smooth. Fold chocolate mixture into the batter.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for 12-15 minutes.

While the cake is baking, lightly sift an even layer of powdered sugar onto a clean flat-weave cloth (not terry cloth).

When the cake is done, flip it onto the cloth as soon as it comes out of the oven. Carefully peel away the parchment paper. Dust the top of the cake lightly with powdered sugar, then trim away the edges with a sharp knife.

Starting with the short side of the cake, immediately roll the cake up in the cloth and cool it completely on a baking rack.

Make the filling: Melt the semi-sweet chocolate in a double boiler. Set aside. In a medium bowl, combine the cream cheese, powdered sugar, butter and vanilla. Beat until fluffy. Beat in the melted chocolate.

Unroll the cake after it has cooled and spread the filling evenly. If you are using pecans, sprinkle them over the filling. Roll the cake back up (not in the towel!) and cool.

Make the frosting: Melt chocolate chips in a double boiler. Set aside. Beat cream cheese with powdered sugar until smooth, then blend in the Kahlua and the melted chocolate.

Frost the cake leaving the ends unfrosted.

The log can then be decorated with chocolate bark, cherries, etc.

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Monday, December 13, 2010

Camellia "Pink Icicle"

This cold hardy camellia (to -20!) has compact, upright growth and lovely shell-pink, peony type flowers that begin in late November for us (the above photo was taken the day before Thanksgiving) and continue through late winter and early spring. It was developed by Bill Ackerman in 1987 from a cross between C. xwillimsii 'November Pink' x C. oleifera 'Lu Shan Snow'.

Long thought of as deep south shrubs, hardier camellias are now a reality thanks to breeding efforts by Bill Ackerman at the National Arboretum during the 80s. When devastating hard freezes hit the area in the late 70s, the Arboretum's huge camellia collection (around 900) was almost wiped out. They noticed that a c. oleifera species (later given the name i"Lu Shan Snow"), introduced in 1948 from northern China, stood up admirably to the cold temperatures. Seeking other varieties in the species, they found another one they called "Plain Jane" and set out to develop new varieties using these as parents. First new hybrids were developed from c. sasanqua and c. heimilis cultivars. Later, spring flowering parents from c. japonica and c. williamsi were crossed to produce more hybrids. 

Similar experiments were conducted in the 1960s by Clifford Parks at his nursery in Chapel Hill, N.C. and resulted in the "April" series of camellias that are available today.

Thanks to these experiments which are still going on, a wide selection of cold hardy camellias are available so that gardeners in upper south regions and even New England gardeners can appreciate these beautiful plants.

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Friday, December 10, 2010

Chocolate Mint Cookies

The garden is cold, the kitchen beckons. If you like chocolate and mint, I think you'll like these cookies. I've made them many times and they are especially nice this time of year. They are soft and chewy and the mint/chocolate combination is just right. I've found that Andes mints are the best candies to use for this recipe. They are the right size. I've tried larger mints and they didn't melt easily on the cookies. Enjoy!


3/4 c. butter
1 1/2 c. brown sugar
2 TBS. water
2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 eggs
2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
18-20 chocolate mint candies (cut in half)


Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt and set aside.

Unwrap the candy pieces and cut them in half.

In a heavy saucepan over low heat, warm the butter, sugar and water until the butter is melted. Add the chocolate chips and mix until the chocolate is partially melted. Remove from heat and mix until the chocolate is completely melted and combined. Pour into a large mixer bowl and let cool slightly.

Beat in the eggs on high speed, one at a time. Lower the speed and add the sifted dry ingredients, beating until blended.

Chill the dough for at least one hour (it can be left in the bowl).

Form dough into balls (a cookie scoop works well for this) and place them 2 inches apart on an ungreased baking pan or cookie sheet.  The cookies can be made large or small depending on your preference.

Bake 8-10 minutes. Transfer to a baking rack and place a half-piece mint candie on top of each cookie. As the chocolate candy begins to melt, use a spoon to spread or swirl the chocolate.

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chocolate Almond Toffee

I've never made toffee before and I was surprised that it is very easy to make. I made these for a goodie bag that we do for the student workers at the library. If I make it again, I think I'll use a bigger pan so the bars will be thinner - it was too sugary for me and that is saying a lot. I might increase the chocolate as well to make that layer a tad thicker.


2 cups butter
2 cups white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup finely chopped almonds

In a large heavy bottomed saucepan, combine the butter, sugar and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring until the butter is melted. Allow to come to a boil, and cook until the mixture becomes a dark amber color, and the temperature has reached 285 degrees F (137 degrees C). Stir occasionally.

While the toffee is cooking, cover a large baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper. Use enough to form sides so that it doesn't stick to the pan.

As soon as the toffee reaches the proper temperature, pour it out onto the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle the chocolate over the top, and let it set for a minute or two to soften. Spread the chocolate into a thin even layer once it is melted. Sprinkle the nuts over the chocolate, and press in slightly.

Place the toffee in the refrigerator to chill until set. Break into pieces, and store in an airtight container.

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Oakleaf Hydrangeas

The oakleaf hydrangea has something to offer in every season (flowers, leaves, bark) and they are stunning in fall with their blazing foliage. These photos were taken the day before Thanksgiving, before we started getting rain and cold temperatures.

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Monday, November 29, 2010

Roses in November

Mrs. B.R. Cant was displaying some nice blooms this past weekend.

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Friday, November 26, 2010

Japanese Maples

The Japanese Maples got off to a late start this year with their fall color but it was so spectacular while it lasted. Last night a front came through with heavy winds and rain followed by colder temperatures. This morning 90% of that beautiful fall color is on the ground. Winter is coming!


Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Monday, November 22, 2010

Camellia "Snow Flurry"

I can usually find something exciting in every gardening season. As winter approaches, the anticipation for camellias builds. Sasanqua camellias bloom in the fall and the showier japonica types will begin blooming in January and continue through early spring.

One of the earliest to bloom is the hybrid "Snow Flurry". It has been blooming now for weeks in our garden. The exquisite camellia is often regarded as a deep south plant but hybridizers continue to work on pushing the envelope. As a result, more cold hardier varieties have been introduced so gardeners farther north can enjoy these beauties as well. "Snow Flurry" is hardy to zone 6.

"Snow Flurry" was released in 1986 by the National Arboretum and it is advertised as one of the most cold hardy camellias available. This is one of the few camellias that I planted on the north side of the house and knock wood, it is thriving nicely.

The pure white anenome type blossoms are rather delicate and shatter easily. This makes them tricky to work with for flower arrangements. It gets an A+ in the landscape, however, and the beautiful flowers are a most welcome treat this time of year.

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Carrot and Pineapple Cake

This recipe comes from Ina Garten (Barefoot Contessa). I made it this past weekend for my family and it was very good! I did use canned pineapple and I found that in my oven, the baking time only took 40 minutes so better aware of that and check it early.

Carrot and Pineapple Cake

For the cake:

* 2 cups granulated sugar
* 1 1/3 cups vegetable oil
* 3 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
* 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
* 2 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, divided
* 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
* 2 teaspoons baking soda
* 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
* 1 cup raisins
* 1 cup chopped walnuts
* 1 pound carrots, grated
* 1/2 cup diced fresh pineapple

For the frosting:

* 3/4 pound cream cheese, at room temperature
* 1/2 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
* 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
* 1 pound confectioners' sugar, sifted

For the decoration:

* 1/2 cup diced fresh pineapple


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Butter 2 (8-inch) round cake pans. Line with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pans.

For the cake:

Beat the sugar, oil, and eggs together in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until light yellow. Add the vanilla. In another bowl, sift together 2 1/2 cups flour, the cinnamon, baking soda, and salt.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. Toss the raisins and walnuts with 1 tablespoon flour. Fold in the carrots and pineapple. Add to the batter and mix well.

Divide the batter equally between the 2 pans. Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow the cakes to cool completely in the pans set over a wire rack.

For the frosting:

Mix the cream cheese, butter and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until just combined. Add the sugar and mix until smooth.

Place 1 layer, flat-side up, on a flat plate or cake pedestal. With a knife or offset spatula, spread the top with frosting. Place the second layer on top, rounded side up, and spread the frosting evenly on the top and sides of the cake. Decorate with diced pineapple.

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Fall colors

The Home Garden blog is celebrating Fall by gathering together blog posts that showcase fall color in their areas. I was beginning to think that we would not have any color to boast about this year. It has been a bad year for the garden - bone-dry conditions from drought being the chief culprit. October is usually a gloriously colorful month here in north Alabama. This year, it is late and we've even had a few frosts already.  A lot of leaves have been lost already before they had a chance to change color. However, the last few weeks has brought about a magical change. Last night brought rain (hooray!), so I rushed yesterday to get a few shots of the garden in her coat of many colors.

The first two photos were taken from the street (W. Limestone) which borders the north side of our property. Ornamental grass "Adagio" and oakleaf hydrangea "Sikes Dwarf" are planted outside the fence. In the background, you can see the foliage of Japanese Maple "Boskoop Glory" and Red Maple "Autumn Blaze". The yellow leaves on the left are also from a red maple.

Hydrangeas, the macrophylla and serrata types, are also very colorful in the fall season. The large yellow tree in the background is actually in our neighbors yard (the lower garden lies between it and this bed) and I don't know what it is.

Standing in front of the bird bath that you see in the above photos, I took this shot looking down along the patio. A Chinese Pistache tree is planted on the patio (to the right). In the background, you can see Japanese Maple "Sango-Kaku", Dogwood and Sugar Maple.

The "Sango-kaku" Japanese Maple is one of my favorites -

The large Dogwood trees were here when we moved in. They offer pleasure in every season -

On the opposite end of the house (the north side) is a small area I created underneath the Yoshino Cherry tree. The crape myrtle in the background was also here when we moved in and I tried to kill it several times (imagine that!). It has beautiful pink flowers that we can see outside our kitchen window as well as brilliant fall color. That is Chester on the bench.

Around the corner to the front garden, you see Japanese Maple "Boskoop Glory" again. The large tree on the left was one of the first I ever planted - a red maple that was on the clearance rack at Wal-Mart. I was very miffed when I saw that the leaves were yellow but I now love it.

Not a lot of color looking inside from the front gate but I wanted to show off the Armandii clematis that I'm very proud of. "Autumn Blaze" maple in the background to the left) -

And finally, a beautiful wisteria inside the secret garden -

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Still hanging on - Euphorbia "Diamond Frost"

This tough little annual is still going strong after two light frosts. It is now a "must have" on my annual list. It blooms non-stop and looks great in containers.

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Pot Arbor

Earlier this year, I posted about the Memphis Hydrangea Tour sponsored by the Mid-South Hydrangea Society. One of the gardens on the tour is Brad Dantone's whose striking pot arbor attracted a lot of attention. Several of you commented about it and asked for directions on how to create one. Brad graciously sent me the directions and I'm just now getting around to posting them (sorry to be so slow!).
Here is Brad next to his pot arbor -

Here are his instructions on how he did it:
{{{This project is easier if two people work together. 

Rebar must be small enough to fit through the hole in the bottom of the pots.Cement the rebar 2 feet into the ground.  Start the pots through the rebar and put mortar on the bottom side of each pot.  Put the next pot on top of the previous pot.  Every pot has the mortar to hold to the next pot as they are treaded through the rebar.

Cement the Post in the ground in the center.

Get a large 2 gallon container, cut the bottom out and centered around the rebar and the first layer of pots.  Stop adding pots above the container.

Pour in the cement and after it dries, cut the plastic off the container.  Use mortar dye to color the cement to a terracotta color.  You can see where the container frame is on the left side of my leg in the picture.

After the cements dries, continue adding more pots with the mortar in between each pot.    

Bend the two rebars to meet in the middle at the post.  The rebar must be bent before the pots are layered.  If not, the pot will crack as you bend the bar.

You will need to cut a piece of rebar to go through the post. Butt the two ends of the rebar together with the piece of rebar in the middle of the post.  Fasten together with a metal gasket that gets tighter as you turn the screw. 

There will be a space of rebar at the top which the pots cannot cover.  Cover the rebar and gaskets with mortar and also dye to the terracotta color. 

A nice winter project! Thank you Brad for sharing your instructions. So, who is going to try it?

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Irene & Jim Fowler's garden in Greenhill

Irene Fowler is an artist, as anyone might guess while strolling through her exquisite woodland garden. Like Pam Harper, she is a master at combining plants in striking combinations that accentuate form, texture and color. I had a field day photographing her garden because at every turn I would find perfect visual vignettes.

The garden lies in a patch of trees behind the Fowler's house. They also garden in the areas surrounding their house, sunnier areas with less trees, but the woodland garden is an extraordinary treat. The Fowler's garden is often featured on garden tours. If you have the chance to see it, do it! It was well worth the drive (they live in the rural Greenhill community).

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Fowler garden (Greenhill, Alabama)

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy