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Review from the Toledo Blade~Mary Alice Powell

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Article published Sunday, September 2, 2007

Tea and hostas in secluded garden

Have you ever been sorry you made arrangements for something and at the last minute didn’t have the guts to cancel it?

That’s the way I felt Monday morning when it was time to head for Hartland, Mich., north of Ann Arbor. But I had promised a group of friends I would join them for tea and hostas, an unlikely combination that works very well for Grit Francis.

All the way home I thought Wow, how lucky I was not to have cancelled and instead drove two hours to experience a stunning menu and a walk with Mother Nature.

Grit is a landscaper and so is her husband, Richard, backgrounds that account for gardens beyond description and a natural preservation on their acreage that is soul soothing.

It took the Francises two years to clear the land deep in the woods to make room for a stunning rambling house. With that accomplished, they set about to plant the species their professional knowledge told them loved shade. Thus, on their 10 acres there are hostas growing in all directions on both sides of walking paths and in all sizes, colors, and with names on identification tags only Grit and Richard can pronounce.

The most unusual ones are the miniature varieties and Girt says she has 75 different ones. The names of miniatures that identify their size include the teaspoon, blue mouse ears, and peanut. Grit credits Dr. Herb Benedict, Hillsdale, Mi., for the development of many of the varieties.

Here and there in the deep woods amid the hostas, fairies are sitting at miniature tables and other dwarf statues show effective decorative objects can be in a garden. One tiny table that is covered with an embroidered doily was naked one morning when Grit checked. A squirrel had taken it high into a tree and she had to wait until the leaves fell in the fall to see and fetch the heirloom linen. Suddenly amid all of the green a bright red Harry Lauder stick tree is stark contrast. Grit painted the leafless tree red this year; last year it was purple, and perhaps next year she will get out the yellow paint.

The home and gardens are rightly named Secluded Celebrations. Secluded it is, way back from the main highways. Fortunately before guests are to arrive Grit scurries out to the country roads with signs with arrows to direct people to her dream home.

“This has been my dream for some time to serve good food at a leisurely pace to family and friends without being hurried or rushed, taking the time to enjoy each other’s company,” she says. She put that dream in place a year ago when she opened the room adjoining the kitchen for teas. You know you are at the right door of the large home because cups and saucers hang from a tree as you enter.

The tea room setting guarantees guests will follow the house rules to relax, eat leisurely, and to also take their time on the hosta path. The large window overlooks gardens in full bloom and just outside the window hummingbirds are so close it is as if they would like a sip of tea too instead of the same old sugar water. The hand painted grape arbor on the tearoom walls is the artistry of Katie Larson, a student at Grand Valley College, Grand Rapids, Mi., who is the waiter at teatime.

The tea selection was Peace; a specialty from the Eastern Shore Tea Co., in Maryland. What was predicted as a traditional high tea with limited food progressed into a many-coursed delectable luncheon. It began with open face tea sandwiches and gazpacho and concluded with chocolate mousse. Both were served in crystal stemware. The late August garden season was recognized in a salad with tomatoes topped by buffalo mozzarella. Sauteed summer squash rounds and spinach pie shared the main course luncheon plates with salmon with dill sauce, grapes, and melon cubes. Somewhere along the line Grit brought bread and butter molded as birds.

More than 1,500 people attend the public garden walks held on two weekends in July. They admire the hostas that are back in full leaf by then, buy some, sip lemonade, and eat snacks Grit has prepared. Otherwise the hostas are sold at farmer’s markets in the area. Girt is up early for the Saturday farmer’s market in Brighton and for the Sunday market in Howell.

You can’t see thousands of healthy hostas and not ask for growing tips for the dozen or so around your house. Grit says to plant them in good compost and never cover the rootstock. In late November cut the good and bad leaves down to the ground and then just wait for spring and Mother Nature’s magic.

The hosta hostess has a limit on tea guests. Her maximum is 16 and the minimum is 5. To get to Hartland take U.S. 23 north to the route M-59 exit. The telephone is 810-632-9084. There is no Web site but creating one is a winter project at Secluded Celebrations.

Mary Alice Powell is a former Blade food editor.

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