Discoveries in the Garden

Nature is bizarre and fascinating. Discovering new things in my small garden world is exciting and makes me think of all that’s still undiscovered in nature.

Yellow Garden Spider

I came across two unfamiliar garden creatures this week. The first was suspended between the milkweed and a daylily stalk from my daylily plant in the front yard. It was a huge spider – about 2 inches long!
In the past four years that I’ve been manicuring the garden, I never came across a spider like this. I plugged her description in google: large yellow and black body, orange/blackish legs, white head. My visitor was a yellow garden spider (argiope aurantia). These beautiful but fierce-looking arachnids can be found throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America. They spin their webs in sunny areas between plants and are said to be common. My garden sounds like the ideal summer resort, I wonder why this was my first encounter?

The yellow garden spider feasts on flies, bees and other insects. They will bite people if threatened but their venum only paralyzes smaller prey. I noticed the spider because of its distinct zigzagging web, which is called a stabilimentum. It’s unknown why the garden spider creates such a unique pattern. Some scientists theorize its to alert birds, so they don’t fly into the web and destroy it.

Male garden spiders are three times smaller than the female. They pluck the female’s web to entice her. The males are no longer needed after mating so they die. The females can live a long life up to 3
years in warmer climates.

Like the spider, I’m often weaving through the tall grass and giant hyssops to manage the weeds. I’m going to think twice next time, knowing that the enormous yellow garden spider can be nestled somewhere within.

The second more bizarre garden “creature” I found this week was an elegant stinkhorn. There is nothing elegant or graceful about this fungus. It looks like a… let’s just say nature really has a sense of humor! It’s orange in color with a slimy brown tip that’s covered in smelly spores. The odor attracts flies and other insects. Their presence distributes the spores as they fly away.

elegant stinkhorns

There are 22 different types of stinkhorns and they grow in damp areas, on forest floors and under leaves. In urban settings they will pop out from under mulched planting beds in late August and early fall. This is the first year I’ve mulched the yard so it makes sense that now they have appeared.

Want to eat an elegant stinkhorn?  Give it a try. It won’t poison you (or make you take a ride on the yellow submarine) but it will taste terrible. But file that info away for the next time you’re starving in the woods.

Want a good laugh? click here.

tagged in garden, gardening, spider

Can Collecting and The Jalopy

Two summers ago, we lent our beat up Hyundai Elantra to a friend and he was hit by a drunk driver. Our mechanic Nick Velardi* pronounced the death sentence for the Hyundai soon thereafter. Walking back from Nick’s we ran into our buddy Kurt Doiron, who noticed we were bummed. “What’s up guys, everything ok?”  “Our car died, we’re in a real bind now.” Matt explained. “I got an extra car you guys can have! I’m paying insurance but I don’t even drive it.” Kurt said. What fate! And whata guy, that Kurt!

Thus began the era of the 1997 Mercury Sable. It’s a tad beat up but it runs pretty well. (Better than the Hyundai, to be fair.) The only issue is that, once in a while, we need to blast WD40 on the metal mechanisms on the door. Otherwise the battery will die. I don’t know why this is, but that’s what Nick says to do and it works!

Having a jalopy has multiple benefits: low insurance; a ding here or there doesn’t matter; soil and plants in the backseat are no problem. You don’t need to feel bad about leaving it a mess!

Matt takes the car mostly and he drinks A LOT of soda and seltzer. The cans stay in the car until we have a passenger deemed worthy of a can clean up or if we’re going to an event and it’s just too embarrassing to pull up to valet in a car that has 50 soda cans strewn about inside. A fun game Matt likes to play is “Who Gets A Can Cleaning?”, the object of which is to name a person, and then figure out whether Matt would clean out the cans if they were to ride in our car.

Niko on the Job

During a visit to my sister last month, my 7 year old nephew Niko asked, confusedly,  “Why is your car so dirty and broken? Why are there cans everywhere?” Kids have no filter!  Matt, thinking the whole situation was hilarious, responded, “Niko, you didn’t know? I’m the National Can Collecting Champion and I’m saving these cans for next year’s competition. You can win a million dollars!” Niko’s face lit up.

Next thing I know, my sister texts me a picture of my nephew with a huge bag of cans! He decided he wants to make a million dollars collecting cans and he was inspired by…  Uncle Matt! Niko’s also planning his science project around his new ambitious job. He’s thinking of making an app for the project (with the help of Dad). Can providers can link up with can collectors, letting them know when and where they have a collection ready for pick-up.


I’m so proud of my nephew Niko for his ambitious work ethic, being environmentally conscious and for his innovative science project. I can tell he’s a go-getter, even at his young age. Keep up the good work Niko – and keep on collecting those cans!

*Nick’s Station – 7303 Amstel Blvd, Arverne, NY 11692

tagged in cars

Basil Behind the Ear


I’m outfront weeding the garden and a neighbor passes by, “Oh! You have something stuck in your hair, let me get it.” “Nope!” I quickly replied, placing my hand by my ear. “That’s supposed to be there, its basil!”

Across the street at the Beach 91st St. Community Garden is where I gather my basil leaves*, and when doing so, think of my grandfather Ralph, who always in the summertime had a piece of basil behind his ear. I have this image in my mind like a still photograph, of him sitting on the red stoop with a bundle of basil in hand and one leaf wedged behind his huge ear.

Grandpa would pinch a leaf from the plant and smile. I remember his loud, audible inhales before adorning his head with the fragrant herb. He gave us basil too and we wore the leaf just like he would, without any thought or question.

These were the late days of summer when my sisters and I helped grandpa harvest. We’d take several basil leaves and wrap them in tinfoil, making rectangular pouches to store in the freezer. Clear as day I remember folding the tinfoil at the kitchen counter. I had to stand on a chair because I was too short to reach. Grandpa Ralph would hover over us “That’s too much!!!” or “That’s too little!!” Despite his voice being loud and aggressive, he was as sweet as the basil we were packing away.

I’m unsure if the tinfoil storage method is an Italian thing, a Sanfilippo tradition my grandfather’s people brought from the old country, or the right way to do it. Regardless, this is how I still freeze my basil today.


I asked my mother why my grandfather always had basil behind his ear but she didn’t know. “I guess he liked the smell.” she said. I couldn’t help searching a little online. I found an archived NY Times article from 1989 about a noted chef and gardener, Dr. Angelo Pellegrini. Here was a clue,  “…it was an aromatic branch of dark-green basil that he raised to his nose and sniffed with deep pleasure. In Italy when we go courting, we put this behind the ear, It gets them every time.”

Sadly, I’ll never get to hear my grandfather’s story about why he wore basil by his ear.  I continue the tradition thought, because for me, basil behind the ear reminds me of him, my childhood days learning in the kitchen and the special memories I hold of those summer days with my family in the garden.

Find my pesto recipe on The Glorified Tomato here.

* Harvest basil by cutting or pinching the stem right above a new leaf pair. In a few weeks, your basil plant will be ready to harvest again.

tagged in basil, family, grandpa

Paula’s Pesto


Paula’s Pesto
(makes 1 cup)

2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino romano
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (don’t use cheap stuff)
1/3 cup pine nuts
2 medium sized garlic cloves, minced
½ lemon squeezed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions: Mix all ingredients in a food processor except the olive oil, salt and pepper. Once roughly chopped, slowly add the olive oil, then salt and pepper to taste

Seal tightly in a container. You can freeze pesto by adding a layer of olive oil on top of the pesto mixture to preserve and prevent browning.


tagged in basil, recipes