Garden For The Eyes-Write For The Ears

The watchers out on the grass could see the interior of the rooms illuminated by the savage glow.  The paneling of the hall had caught, and even as they looked they saw the canvas of a portrait give an extra little spurt of a yellower flame and flutter without its frame to the floor.  This was the odd thing to observe: the mingling of such small detail and Wagnerian holocaust.

Vita Sackville-West
The Easter Party; 1953

Since we are approaching winter it seems appropriate for one to think about hunkering down with some good books-or perhaps finishing that novel or collection of poems you’ve been working on.  Can I please then, for a moment talk about writing?  I just finished the most glorious little forgotten book.  As most old books are forgotten let us not forget Logan Pearsall Smith and his little book of reminisces, The Unforgotten Years.  Beautiful little piece of history.  I was excited to sit and read each weathered page of my old copy.

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There seems to be a lack of appreciation of good writing today.   It seems the style that has come into fashion is a very dry prose with an over use of BIG words.   In reality, by doing so and too often, they are only extracting the richness out of their descriptions.  When reading some of the modern works today.  It feels as though the heart is taken out of the prose.  The humanity, or the human condition is no longer a factor to be examined.

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Ironically Smith complains about this same thing occurring in his old age with youthful writers over one hundred years ago.   He says:

“The truth is that almost all that makes the reading of old books delightful is neglected by those who wield their steel nibs in the age of steel.  There were arts, there were blandishments, there were even tricks, which were intended to beguile the older generations, and which have succeeded in beguiling subsequent generations as well.  In the first place good prose used to be written, not, as it is written to-day, for the eye alone, but also for the ear.”

When read aloud your writing should sound as elegant as intended.  If the reader must stumble over ostentatious verbiage most of the time- your point will be lost.  You see what I did there?   At least in my humble opinion this is the case with writing today.

Now, back to the garden for it too must hunker down and get to work.  Like the roses which must turn their fine petals of silk into rose hips for the birds, you too must do this with your writing.  Give the world something to feed upon that will enrich as well as  caress the broken hearts and the lonely souls of this world.

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Bugbane: The Angel Of The *Fall*

Not often now, in my saddened old wisdom, do I get enticed by catalogue descriptions into ordering something which I know is almost bound to disappoint.  Yet from time to time I fall.  I do not regret this.  If one lost the capacity of falling, it would mean that one had passed from the trustful meadows of youth into the skeptical deserts of age, and that would be a pity for any gardener, since gardening is essentially a hopeful, optimistic occupation.

-Vita Sackville-West
February 7, 1954
More For Your Garden

Is she not amazing?  I fall deeper in love with her writing every time I pick up one of her books (I practically have them all).  Just when I think I have gotten use to her poetic prose and fanciful descriptions that waver between gardening and the meaning of life, I am struck again by her ability to encapsulate all that is true and meaningful beyond the garden itself.

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Yes I too make mistakes, or rather I’m sometimes disappointed with my choices.   This realization never happens right away however.   I think in most cases you just have to give it time.  For instance, I was unsure of my choice of the Bugbane or the Cimicifuga.   After a long spout of no luck in our shady front yard and after being told I would never be able to find any flowering plants for shade, I was pointed in the direction of the bugbane by a very knowledgeable nursery worker.  I was told it was slow to grow and that it may not flower for three years.

It was very small when I planted it.  I divided it into three or four other plants because the roots had grown so tight in the planter.  When I separated them with my clippers they faltered for a week or so but soon flourished and grew quite rapidly.  To my surprise, they did flower this year and I have the pleasure of seeing the beautiful blooms of the Cimicifuga, or if you would like to use its most recently changed name the Actaea Racemosa, during this time of the year when we gardeners thirst for a fresh surprise, a little color and a little fragrance.

 

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Speaking of fragrance, the Bugbane has an interesting one.  I would say it is that of sour vanilla, but it’s not exactly off-putting.  It rather draws the nose to its tiny white stamens again and again in order to pinpoint the scent exactly.

They like partial sun to shade and moist soil.  They are not picky about the nutrients or the acidity levels, they can flourish in all.   However, the more sun they get the more they will bloom, and the blooms will reach about 2-3 feet if not more.  I’m getting many blooms on mine and it is practically in full shade so that should tell you something.  Water them like you would any other new plant for the first year, then ignore them.  They are wild in their genealogy so given this fact they are more hardy and pest resistant like other wild plants.

 

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Bugbane has many names.  For instance, it is sometimes called black snakeroot.  Do not confuse the bugbane or black snakeroot with the white snakeroot.  The white snakeroot contains the toxin tremetol which causes tremors in cattle if ingested and if humans ingest the milk by an exposed animal or eat the meat they will get milk sickness.   It is known that Abraham Lincoln’s mother died of milk sickness when he was young.

The black snakeroot actually has many medicinal properties that frontiersman and Native American’s used.  It is said to repel bug bites, and help calm menopause and acne just to name a few.  However, I’d suggest going to your local drug store for the remedies of said afflictions.

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The bugbane is indeed the saving grace, an angel if you will of the autumn and I too was victim to the “fall” as Vita explains, but I have yet to be disappointed.  I will wait, and in the spring I will spread the plants out to create more of a happy crowded appearance mixed with the astilbe I mentioned in my post Astilbe & The Romanovs.  Since its leaves are still green and the astilbe look dead (which I hope isn’t the case) adding these to the mix would add interest and color for all seasons.  When they really get going they will be gorgeous.

Larry Hodgson describes in his book, Making the Most of Shade that planted in numerous groups, the bugbane will present a striking show – like roman candles set against their dark green foliage shooting up toward the sky.  I will do my best to reproduce this effect for you and all passersby in the coming years.

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In Themes Of War…

Honour the gardener!  that patient man
Who from his schooldays follows up his calling,
Starting so modestly, a little boy
Red-nosed, red-fingered, doing what he’s told,
Not knowing what he does or why he does it,
Having no concept of the larger plan.
But gradually, (if the love be there,
Irrational as any passion, strong,)
Enlarging vision slowly turns the key
And swings the door wide open on the long
Vistas of true significance.

-Vita Sackville-West
The Garden; 1946

I love Vita’s poetry.  It took me awhile to like poetry and even still sometimes it’s hard for me to understand.  I think in order to love poetry one must know the author and the times in which they wrote.  Vita loved her garden.  Her compilation of poems The Garden cover all four seasons.  However, there is one recurring theme which trickles in every now and then.  It is that of the second World War.  I’m sure she had written these poems in the last year of the war at least.  When the poems were published in 1946 there was still a residue of it in England at this time.  If one reads carefully it is there, quiet but ever-present…

“Yet shall the garden with the state of war
Aptly contrast, a miniature endeavour
To hold the graces and the courtesies
Against a horrid wilderness.  The civil
Ever opposed the rude, as centuries
Slow progress labored forward, then the check,
Then the slow uphill climb out of the pit,
Advance, relapse, advance, relapse, advance,
Regular as the measure of a dance;
So does the gardener in little way
Maintain the bastion of his opposition
And by symbol keep civility;
So does the brave man strive
To keep enjoyment in his breast alive
When all is dark and even in the heart
Of beauty feeds the pallid worm of death.”

Did you hear it?  The themes of war?

She speaks of it often in her writings.  She describes gardens abandoned or neglected in the years of war.  She talks about rose bushes, relinquished for that time being, growing wild because they had not been pruned and were more beautiful than ever before.

But for the purpose of this post I’ll speak of a different type of war.  Sometimes I feel like preparing for winter is akin to preparing for war.  Protect those you love as the blistering winds are upon us.  In other words, it is time to shut one’s garden down.   The frost will come soon.  So save those that may still bloom behind the comfort of glass on your windowsill, and clip those you can dry.  A reminder of the summer sun will remain in the dehydrated petals for you to gaze upon all winter long.

I have clipped my sweet woodruff to dry for Christmas sachets.  It hangs for now in my kitchen as you can see below.  In my post Short and Sweet Woodruff I explained that if you clip sweet woodruff in autumn and dry it, it will make lovely sachets that smell like freshly cut grass all winter.  Vita mentioned keeping one under her pillow to capture the scent while she slept.

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Similarly, I dried the lavender and my astilbe spikes.  I talked about astilbe in my post
Astilbe & The Romanovs.   I’ll use the astilbe in vases around my house to add interest to a space.  The lavender however will be crushed with the sweet woodruff and stuffed in the Christmas sachets.  I love homemade Christmas gifts.

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The one cut flower that will dry amazingly is the zinnia.  Since we’re getting very close to a heavy frost I will cut them all.  It pains me to do so since some have yet to bloom.  But the bud stage actually produces a very interesting dried specimen.  Also hydrangea are very interesting too.

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So go out and save a bit of your garden before it’s too late.  You’ll applaud your own resourcefulness.   When times get a little too dreary this winter always think about next year’s garden, entertain yourself with fantasies and possibilities.  Think of the most outrageous thing you can do and make it happen!

“…But gradually, (if the love be there,
Irrational as any passion, strong,)
Enlarging vision slowly turns the key
And swings the door wide open on the long
Vistas of true significance.”

A good gardener is not afraid to experiment.

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Above: My Experiment: Morning Glory in a vase.  Do you think these buds will open?

Inspire us, in what ways have you experimented lately?

This Morning…

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Porcelain Berry Bright…

Another vine which is giving me great pleasure at the moment is Vitis heterophylla, an East Asian.  You can’t eat it, but you can pick it and put it in a little glass on your table, where its curiously coloured berries and deeply cut leaves look oddly artificial, more like a spray designed by a jeweler out of dying turquoises than like a living thing.

 

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden; October 12th, 1947

As I write this it’s raining.  Not a downpour but rather a slight drizzle.   I took a walk around my garden and noticed my honeysuckle had burst forth some new blooms.  I rested by them a moment to catch their scent.  I won’t smell them again for many months.  For here, in this state, we have been trained to succumb to the “fall” of good weather, predictable weather, and give in to the desolate, the gray, the wet, the cold.  I sat there with the last breath of honeysuckle flower and watched the sparrows fly madly in flocks above the autumn colored leaves.  It made me rather sad, but one must shrug it off, live day by day and start plans for next year’s garden.

So for next year, remember: when the garden gets rather dreary like this, one can always plant something that will excite and add color.  Intrigued by Vita’s description, I was determine to find myself some of these magical autumn berries for myself.   I went to the local nursery and found something similar.  Because the Vitis heterophylla doesn’t grow well in our harsh Michigan winters.  I have found instead porcelain berries, the Ampelopsis brevipedunculata.  They belong to the same family and are almost identical, save their foliage.

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The berries started to appear around mid-September, but because I had just purchased it from a green house, it might have been a little ahead of its natural schedule.   I planted it against my garage and gave it some lattice to climb up.  It does not have “suckers” so it will not do any damage to your walls.  It does however have those cute little arms that reach out and twist themselves around whatever they can.  It grows quickly but not as quickly as the morning glory vine which I talked about last week in my post, Morning Glory: A Warning.  This one seems rather easy to control since its growing period occurs before the berries appear.  Then it conserves all its energy to produce its brightly colored fruit.   You can trim it and train it to grow just how you want it.

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They are fun.  I couldn’t believe the different shades of blues and purples it will produce.  I picked up a couple antique butter dishes like the one above and put a handful in with a little water (otherwise they’ll shrivel), they do make quite a display.  In a larger bowl with some of their beautiful leaves intermixed would be a nice too.  Or perhaps drying them?There are countless decorative ideas one might do with them.

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So if you’re looking for some added color to your garden or want something out of the ordinary, try porcelain berries.  They are a fun juxtaposition to all the autumn colors we’re so used to seeing.  So much so they might become the conversation piece of your garden.   After all,  it isn’t something your neighbor might grow.  Visitors that might not know what they are will be intrigued and applaud your discovery. 

It’s good for one’s garden to inspire others with a bit of whimsy and wonder.  Don’t you think?

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Morning Glory: A Warning

Meanwhile we surround a huge black Chinese jar with the blue Oxypetalum and the blue plumbago all through the summer, and drop a pot full of morning glory, Heavenly Blue, into the Chinese jar, to pour downwards into a symphony of different blues.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

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I missed writing a post last week because I was tirelessly working on my second book.   It’s almost finished but I just need to “paint” a few more layers to make it solid.   Sometimes I think I should start a writing process blog so I can vent my troubles to the world instead of my incredibly patient husband.  I ask him, “Did I run into this kind of trouble on my last book?  Did I want to give up and throw it in the garbage?”  “Yes,” he replies.  “Keep at it, you’ll eventually find what you’re looking for.”  Like some magical oracle he says this and I believe him because he seems to be always right.   So for a week I toiled and mulled over the hole I was almost falling in until I found a little bridge to take me across.  The story is so much better now.  All I needed to do was spend a little more time with the characters (I’m going on a year with this one) and they eventually showed me the way.

Much like the garden and the flowers we have planted.  The more time you spend with them the more you get to know them.  Take for instance the morning glory as it is our subject this week.   How excited I was to buy these seeds, the seeds of the Heavenly Blue which Vita talks about endlessly.   I believe she called it the perfect shade of blue.  I have written a post on morning glory called From Muddy Waters to Finding the Perfect Shade of Blue, but I wrote that post before I spent any time with the flower.  I will say now that I would have planted them elsewhere.
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What I didn’t realize was these vines, once they get going, won’t stop.  Surely they will take over your other plants if not put in a place all their own where they can’t reap havoc.   Their little arms reach out grabbing for whatever they can and they pull, twist and coax everything  into their leafy embrace.  They uprooted one of my large zinnias and shielded my beloved rose bushes from the sun. They are wild.  As a result, I am currently treating all my roses for black spot.

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So the other day on a surprisingly warm October afternoon, I looked at my garden and I got angry.  Once coveted and prized for their beautiful blue flowers I now gazed at them with loathing.  They had turned out to be completely impolite and gluttonous with the space they were given.  I realized I had made a grave mistake.  Planting the morning glory in my garden was like bringing a wild animal into my house.  Once it grew to four inches it went wild all over the place, too quickly for me to stop it.   I was finished with this little shop of horrors menace so I got a little rough and I pushed all the vines to one side of the fence and I took my shears and freed my rose bushes and zinnias from their grasp.

They are beautiful, yes, and I would highly recommend them if you have the room.  But choose a space that will be entirely theirs,  keep them away from all other plants.  If you do you’ll be happy and you’ll enjoy them thoroughly.  They are very beautiful and deserve full attention away from the garden where the “domestic” plants live.

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Dahlia: A Nuisance

…a dahlia is a nuisance, because its tubers have to be lifted in autumn, stored in a frost-proof place, started into growth under glass in April, and planted out again at the end of May.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958


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I had no idea what a dahlia was when my husband brought home a bag full of tubers one Spring afternoon.  He had been working on a road project that day and an old Italian man gave him a tour of his garden.  He had brought his dahlia tubers from Italy.  They had been split numerous times since I’m sure, but the DNA from the original remained. I had no idea what would pop up when my husband showed me the long ugly tubers, which I thought looked more like spindly potatoes.  The old Italian man warned Bryan that the tubers must be planted in the ground that week or the flowering will come too late.

I thought I would dig a deep hole and plop the tubers in like some sort of bulb.  No sir!  Like magic, Bryan saw the old Italian man again that week.  Like a wise shaman of flowers he informed my husband that the Dahlia tubers should fear no risk of frost because they are taken out of the ground directly after flowering and put in box of peat moss and placed in a warm spot for the winter.   He went on to explain that because of this the tubers do not have to be planted very deep.  In fact, the tubers like to be just a couple inches below the surface.  Instead of planting the long ugly things vertical like one would suspect and would be the easiest task, one must instead dig a horizontal hole and lay the tuber inside like one would a casket.  This is precisely why they are considered a nuisance and I almost resented the Italian gift, but the flowers are so beautiful it’s worth the trouble.  So every fall we exhume the ugly tubers from their resting place and follow the advice of the wise old Italian.

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Yes, it’s true the tubers are very ugly indeed and looking at it one might think in fact they all should be buried like little caskets because they look to be dead.  I myself threw one unremorsefully into the vegetable garden thinking the last growth had sucked the life out of it.  But to my surprise, my son found it growing amongst the vegetables happy as a clam.  I have since transplanted it into my garden and it is now the biggest, healthiest of the lot. Don’t be fooled by those ugly little tubers, the flowers they produce are one of the most striking flowers of all, in my opinion.  They are related to the zinnia and they have the long lasting quality of keeping itself fresh in water, and I’ll bet they dry nicely too although I haven’t tried.  Perhaps I’ll cut one and see; as Vita always says, “a good gardener is one who makes experiments”.

They are somewhat of a nuisance though, because they can not be forgotten as a perennial or a bulb would be.  Because of our cold climate, they must be raised up out of the ground and stored

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Vita’s Wish For Nasturtium…

What about Tropaeolum speciosum, the flame nasturtium, with brilliant red trumpets among the small dark leaves?  This is the glory of Scottish gardens…

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden
November 24, 1946

Something rather peculiar happened when I was planning my garden back in April.  I knew I wanted to plant seeds, two in particular; the zinnia and the morning glory.  But a picture of a brilliant red flower caught my eye so I picked up the packet to examine it.  I had never seen nor heard of the nasturtium before.  However, I didn’t want to bother with new seeds I knew nothing about so I put it back…or so I thought.

I came home that day and discovered the packet in my purchase bag as if Vita herself had put it there.   I took this as her spirit coaxing me to try them.  I carried her spirit with me a lot in those early days of spring, unsure and uneducated in the way of gardening.  But she helped me very much, and I do believe this was her way of coaxing me along to experiment.   So I did.

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They soon came up in these cute little clumps of lily pad-like leaves and they grew and multiplied; covering the ground, expanding and taking over my bare areas where I needed the extra growth.   I love the leaves with their defined veins reminiscent of exploding stars, and the tiny flowers hide inside their abundance as if they were a secret.   My Grandma came over and noticed them.  She told me that her mother, my Great Grandmother use to grow nasturtiums all the time.  This I never knew.  However, I waited a long time for them to flower.   They took all summer to do so, but they are lovely!  They are indeed like flames among the green, coming in bright orange and brilliant red.

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The other day I experimented by clipping a few of the flowers for a vase.   Although they didn’t last more than a week it was a good opportunity to see the flowers close up and get a whiff of their delicious scent, which is like a delicate baby powder.  They are so low to the ground one would have to get on one’s hand and knees to smell them.  I’ve often thought that next year I should try them in pots.  That way I can move them around to my liking and have them burst and melt over the sides of the pot.  They will also be at eye and nose level for my ultimate delight.   I do recommend these curious ground loving plants. Go ahead and grow something different.  As Vita would say, “Try“.

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