Today’s Quote: Out of Africa

“Our machinery was never quite what it should have been, but we had planned and built the factory ourselves and thought highly of it.”

-Isak Dinesen

Out Of Africa;

1937

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Coming Home…

We have been warned that there may be a shortage of certain flower seeds after the unnaturally wet and sunless summer of 1954, and that it is therefore even more advisable than usual to order in good time.

-Vita Sackville-West
More For Your Garden
January 2, 1955

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I haven’t written in a few weeks.  During my time away, I was working on a couple books but through the toil of turning words, characters, and plotlines, I acquired an unprecedented lack of interest for all things green.

After reading the letters of Vita to Virginia Woolf I put Vita down for a while, her books sat on my shelf unopened.    I became so entrenched in my own writing I completely forgot the garden.   It went alright for a while.  Some of what I wrote turned out well and I was proud to call it my work.  But the creative juices eventually ceased for lack of nourishment and writer’s block hit me.  I wondered what had happened to spur the drought.  I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, thinking the prose would inspire something in me, but it had the opposite effect.  If anything, it spurred a desperate yearning to be a better writer and work more intensely on my craft.  Forget the garden all together for there is real work to be done.

The writings of Virginia Woolf make everything I’ve ever written seem trivial and frivolous.   She holds a profound understanding of humanity at a distance, yet so close to the chest.  She writes with a cold intensity that could only be matched in warfare, yet soft like a passing thought or a summer’s breeze.  How does she do it?  The word genius comes to mind – that word which separates the masters from mere tradesman.

I finished the book last night; placed a four star review on goodreads and lifted Vita’s More For Your Garden off my nightstand.   Reading just a couple lines brought me home again and I instantly remembered why I was drawn to her in the first place.   Vita Sackville-West is my muse and my inspiration – not only for the garden, but for my writing.   She takes nothing away from her readers.  She will not strip you down and smugly examine you.   Instead, she will let you be just as you are, but nurture your growth.  Right there with you, she’ll hold your hand through the journey; a comfort and a joy.   She is a reminder of the consistencies in nature – the earth will always smell like earth, a rose will perpetually surprise you with its beauty, and if you cut a branch it will sprout anew.

Vita possessed the grounding element which Virginia lacked.  On the other hand, Virginia possessed a keen understanding of the human condition which Vita lacked.  I find this balance in their writing useful for my own.  However, there was nothing more refreshing than opening Vita’s little garden book after so long a winter; like a sudden warm breath of freesia and jasmine in the cold.  Indeed, it is good to be home.

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To The Jungle…

…As monks will seek in contemplation’s cell
An increment of quiet holiness,
Prolonged novena,- so the Winter gives
A blameless idleness to active hands
And liberates the vision of the soul.
Darkness is greater light, to those who see;
Solitude greater company to those
Who hear the immaterial voices; those
who dare to be alone.

-Vita Sackville-West
The Garden; 1946

 

In winter, one tries to distract oneself with projects.  I have begun another novel (I just finished my second).  This one takes place in a jungle- somewhere, I haven’t quite placed it.  I’ve been watching documentaries on South Africa, South America and I threw in one about the Galapagos while I was at it.  I’ve also been listening to a lot of African music and much of Yo-Yo Ma’s silk road project-which takes its listener all over the world and back.  So I don’t quite know yet- and I may just shelf it all together.  Right now, I’m praying for focus since I have another story I shelved a year ago.  To which do I devote my time?   Perhaps spending so much time with my orchids is putting this foreign jungle in my head.  Should I shake it? or let it be?
But the orchid set in rock and rooted in trees – like nature’s intention: their white, moth-like flowers cascading…
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I had a dream last night that my spring bulbs were coming up.  However, I feared not all would not make it.  Then Vita’s voice reassured me by repeating a little known fact: some take two years to really get going.   But what about my hellebores?  Have they begun… I woke up on my way to find them – waking to the harsh reality that I will not find them for another nine weeks.  So again, I must find a little delight indoors.

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I was delighted yesterday when I saw my chocolate oncidium had shot up a flower spike and will bloom soon.  I have not seen its little dark purple flowers (above) for a year now.  It is called “chocolate”, because their intoxicating fragrance is just like chocolate with a hint of sweet vanilla.   Oncidiums are much like Phalaenopsis where they must be watered once a week and they require a similar atmosphere and light.

The Dendrobium Nobile also require water once a week, sometimes twice a week depending on how dry it is.  They also require a lot of sun and humidity.  But in order to bloom they need a six week drought period.  Mine bloomed two weeks ago…

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If you have more than one orchid, watering can be a dreadful task-especially if you have to fertilize or if you are using special water.  In my case, I use distilled.  Distilled water is an extra expense and one not to be wasted.  In order to conserve as much as possible I pour a quarter of the gallon-perhaps more, into a large bowl.  First I let my tillandsia soak a bit (but that is another post).  One by one I bring my orchids to their bath; oldest to newest.  Why in this order?  Because my newest are still being monitored for disease.   I water them last in order to keep them isolated from my healthy orchids.   After you’ve had them in your possession for two-three months and you don’t see any evidence of pests or disease, the order will not matter.
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So I will set them in the bowl, and taking a tinier bowl or cup, I’ll lift water onto the roots (only) until they are thoroughly soaked.  I will then let the orchid drain and put it back in its decorative pot by a window.  After watering, some experts recommend you place a blooming orchid exactly in the position you found it so it will not twist its flowers – they will do this to find light.

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It’s simple once you have a little routine established.  I have a friend who is mother to forty orchids-all phalaenopsis.  She places them all in the bath tub and gives them a “bath” literally.  It’s really what is easiest for you.  She and her orchids don’t seem to mind the chlorine water we have here in Detroit.   I’m sure most orchids can handle regular tap water so make it easy on yourself if you’d like.   They are easy to care for and their blooms last for months – really a great way to occupy yourself until spring.  Perhaps in the meantime they will inspire me to finish what I’ve started in my novel.  Back to the jungle I go…

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Examining The Garden of Love…

Today as I was driving down Oxford Street I saw a woman on a refuge,  carrying the Lighthouse.*  She was an unknown woman, – up from the country, I should think, and just been to Mudie’s or the Times, – and as the policeman held me up with his white glove I saw your name staring at me, Virginia Woolf, against the moving red buses, in Vanessa’s paraph of lettering.  Then as I stayed there (with my foot pressing down the clutch and my hand on the brake, as you will appreciate,) I got an intense dizzying vision of you: you in your basement, writing; you in your shed at Rodmell, writing; writing those words which that woman was carrying home to read.  How had she got the book? Had she stalked in, purposeful, and said “I want To the Lighthouse”? or had she strayed idly up to the counter and said “I want a novel please, to read in the train,-a new novel,-anything’ll do”?
Anyhow there it was, one of the eight thousand, in the hands of the Public.

-Vita Sackville-West
July 27th, 1927
The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf

*To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf was published in 1927

 

For a moment let us take a break from the garden.  Like our beloved plants, we too need winter’s snooze to renew our energies.  Let us shed some old leaves in order to gain new, healthier ones- read some garden books.  For me, this includes books involving one of the greatest gardeners I know: Vita Sackville-West.

As this blog is also about Vita Sackville-West I thought I would dive into her personal life a moment…

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I’m reading the letters of Vita to Virginia Woolf.  The letters themselves are interesting but do not pay much attention to the introduction.  Written by Mitchell A. Leaska, it rambles for forty pages, and is nothing short of nonsense.  It is not my style to criticize other writers.  His writing is fine.  There is some valuable, straight information – but I think some of his content is…unfair.  Mostly, it feels as though the editor struggles to make sense of their relationship (whether he does or not)- it is in his tone.  Written in 1984, homosexual love wasn’t commonplace or openly acceptable.  The tone of his writing is as though he felt they were drawn to each other because each had something for which the other yearned-not mere attraction, but rather control and perhaps a little competition on Vita’s end, and a certain neediness on Virginia’s.  In my experience, twenty-year relationships are not usually built on egotistical motives.

Perhaps the editor would not have spent so much time trying to analyze the dynamics of a man and a woman?  Must the reader be tortured for forty pages while he tries to roll it around on the end of his pen?  He seemed himself quite confused to say the lest-which is odd because upon researching his work, it seems he spent nearly a lifetime on the relationship between these two woman.  For example, he makes assumptions that seemed a bit lazy in explanation:

With the same pen she used to write her letters to Virginia, Vita would in a few years write a novel in which her sadistic hero would say to his lover:  “I should like to chain you  up … naked and beat you and beat you till you screamed.””

Then he goes on to explain that this must have been a fantasy to Vita (who did have an aggressive personality), that she would have liked to do this to Virginia.  What!  An author does not tell its character what to do, it is quite the opposite.  The character tells the author what to write, it has nothing to do with the author personally – at least it shouldn’t, not literally anyway.   If this man were a novelist, he would have been able to imagine that was the case-unless I have misunderstood him which I hope I have.

So while my eyes scanned the pages of this introduction, my mind rambled with objections.  Rather than being on a sort of aggressive competition, which the editor insinuates-I would argue these two women (1) Were physically, mentally and emotionally attracted to one another.  (2) Felt deep respect and admiration for the other’s accomplishments.  (3) Acted as muse for one another (Virginia would write Orlando in which Vita represents the protagonist and the story represents her life).  (4) They were also each other’s sounding board.   It is quite a thing for one to be admired for one’s talent by a friend in the same field, and yet feel safe to feed off that person’s knowledge at the same time because neither is preparing for a competitive rift.

Both were open about their flaws in writing and in life.  Virginia, ill much of the time, did not like to write long letters, but the little she wrote is to the point and entertaining to read.  She was a keen observer of people, a quality which made her writing so superb.   She pinpoints Vita’s secret flaw almost immediately when she writes,

“…And isn’t there something obscure in you?  There’s something that doesn’t vibrate in you: It may be purposely-you don’t let it: but I see it with other people, as well as with me: something reserved, muted- God knows what… It’s in your writing too, by the bye.  The thing I call central transparency- sometimes fails you there too…” -Virginia Woolf; November 19, 1926

I would say this translates to Vita’s aloofness.  She seemed present but only giving half of herself- thinking of other things, never focused on present life- mind always floating back to her little desk and her pen…then later her garden…perhaps?  Like an over-energetic squirrel- secretly pining over their nuts while they look you in the eye and “listen” to conversation.  I’ve met many of them.  From what I gather, she did not feel she belonged to the tribal, communal world of the human race- rather, she would have liked to have peace and quiet alone in the woods or her garden.  However, that image paints her as soft and angelic-she could play that part, yes.  But she was also aggressive and raw.  She was incredibly independent and loved her solitude (she would go on to write an expansive poem about it.)

Vita is very open about her disinterest in the human condition and human relationships which is perhaps why she was so good a gardener.  She examines this flaw in herself, calling Virginia a sort of witch for figuring her out so correctly in the quote above.  This is one, I think, major difference between them.  The editor points this out in his intro and I agree with him here, that it is perhaps the difference which drew them together.
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Photo taken from The New Yorker.

In 1930 Vita moved to Sissinghurst and began creating the gardens which would one day be world famous and stamp her name solidly onto history’s plate.  Virginia and she continued writing and seeing each other despite the petrol rationing of World War II.  Then suddenly at fifty-nine years old in 1941, six days after Vita had seen her healthy and fine, Virginia killed herself.  Fearful of going mad again and putting her husband through the hell of it, Virginia drowned herself in the River Ouse.

For the rest of her life Vita wondered if she could have saved her friend’s life had she been there.  It was a pang of unending regret that coiled itself into the very soil at Sissinghurst.  It is where Vita dug out all the suppressed hurt and pain of the past and planted instead not only a garden, but the best version of herself.

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The Modest Christmas Cyclamen

I went to a Christmas party given by a neighbor of mine…All the things appertaining to a cocktail party were standing about, on tables; but the thing that instantly caught my eye was a pot plant of cyclamen I had not seen for years.
Delicate in its quality, subtle in its scent, which resembles the scent of wood violets, it stood there in a corner by itself, looking so modest and Jane-Austen-like among its far grander companions.  It had a freshness and an innocence about it, a sort of adolescent look, rather frightened at finding itself in company of orchids and choice azaleas and glasses filled with champagne cocktails.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

 

I thought that was an interesting glimpse from one of Vita’s many garden books.  They are sometimes more like glimpses into her private life.  Her garden books are quite a pleasure to read if you know someone who might like to take a little journey to Sissinghurst (figuratively speaking).  I read this passage back in June and couldn’t wait to share the idea of giving cyclamen away at Christmas.  It’s such a lovely idea!  If I were ever the recipient of such a gift I would treasure it as I do all my other gifted plants.
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My local greenhouse is full of color right now – so uplifting.   I realize it’s almost Christmas and heaps of snow cover the ground, but the greenhouse will never fail its customer; bearing an open wallet and a generous nature.  They have an abundance of different cyclamen right now, so go in and take your pick!   If one takes good care of it, the corms will continue to flower for years.  They can be taken outside in the spring and brought back in when the temperature drops.

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Here is what Vita says about the care of indoor cyclamen:
“A pot of cyclamen is a favorite Christmas present, and very nice, too, but by this time (March) some recipients may be wondering what to do with it.  Don’t throw it away.  It will repeat its beauty for you year after year if you treat it right.  Treating it right means (1) keeping it moist so long as it continues to flower and to carry leaves; (2) letting it dry off by degrees after the last buds have opened and faded away; (3) keeping it, still in its pot, un-watered, in a frost-proof place during the remaining cold weeks, and then standing it out of doors, still un-watered, still in its pot, throughout the spring and early summer in a shady place (4) starting it into life again in July or August.  Staring it into life again merely means giving it water again – very simple.”

In addition to this she warns,  if you see a yellowing leaf clip it with scissors, never pull the leaf as you might take a bit of the corm with it.  Also if there is a withering flower cut this also, never pull.

 

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They are beautiful flowers this time of year.  I like the pure white myself.  To me, they are reminiscent of white doves – an appropriate symbol for the Christmas season.  They come in a variety of colors and the frilly ones have a citrus fragrance to them and are quite attractive- like little pink ballerinas.

Hardy cyclamen do exist of course, but I’ve been told in Michigan their success rate is low since the squirrels get after the corms.  I don’t really see why this wouldn’t be a problem elsewhere, but perhaps our soil is easily penetrated, as opposed to the clay soil Vita complained about at Sissinghurst Castle?

Have a splendid holiday season, and do consider giving the gift that keeps on giving- you might just ignite a love for gardening in an unsuspecting relative or friend.

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Indoor Gardening: A Happy Journey Through Winter.

The fashion for growing plants indoors is very understandably on the increase.  The lead had been given to us by the Scandinavia countries, where the climate must be more difficult to manage than our own, and where the inhabitants go to the most elaborate lengths to ensure a supply of living vegetation and greenery in their rooms throughout their long winter.  It is a pleasant fashion, and I hope it never proves to be ephemeral.

-Vita Sackville-West
November 14th, 1954

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Rather on the contrary to Vita’s fear, I think indoor gardening is on the rise.   I myself, don’t think I could live without the pleasure of gazing at my blooming houseplants all winter long.  I feel so blessed to have a collection that provides me with something at all times.  I no longer dread the coming of winter because I know my work indoors will begin.  Just because the roses are gone and the dahlias are dug up doesn’t mean I won’t have flowers.  In fact, I will have plenty.

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Forget fresh flowers in each room- what about live flowers instead?  With all the positive research which proves plants provide clean air for our stagnant wintery houses why wouldn’t one want a plant to bring some new oxygen and color?

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My love for flowers began with the cactus- if you can believe it.  They were inexpensive and there little pots did not impose on the limited space in our home.  However, as I was trying to roll myself out of a wintery funk, gazing upon one little cactus wasn’t good enough.  My broken spirit needed something more- something bigger than me.  Soon that little pleasure took the form of a therapeutic obsession which branched out into the interest of other plants and soon tramped off to expand itself outdoors.  I followed it willingly and found myself feeling the greatest pleasure.  I attached myself to a positive energy that spun all the heaviness away.


In the dead of winter, we can all get a little run down.  So when this happens, I venture off to my favorite place: Telly’s Greenhouse in Troy, MI.  Their collection of house plants is out of this world and the displays are nothing short of inspirational.  Stepping out of the cold and into their greenhouse (pictured above) one is immediately struck by the humidity and the most wonderful smell of wet dirt.  Find a nice greenhouse near you and make it your safe haven.

People tell me they kill cacti, succulents and orchids too.  I myself cringe at the times I threw phalaenopsis orchids away when their blooms died.  Not anymore.  I have one that has been blooming consistently (taking short breaks here and there), throwing up blooms since two years ago.  Don’t let anyone fool you, their care is not challenging.

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My latest achievement however, is getting my dendrobium to bloom this year.  I’ve been waiting two years and my hard work has finally paid off.  Since dendrobium’s and cacti need a drought period in order to bloom, they are such rewarding plants when they finally shoot up some color for you.  Indeed, they teach patience and perseverance.

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Sounds complicated and annoying to have to wait so long, but that’s the fun of it.  If you need a distraction or feel a bit heavy, get out into the garden and start with something simple.  I promise you, gardening can cure all mental ailments if you’re willing to be cured. Whether indoor or outdoor there is an endless amount of knowledge to learn and practice.  Be well this winter; allow the flowers to lift your spirit.

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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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