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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A Gardener’s Haste Makes Waste

No good comes of repining, so let me note one special thing I saw at Nymans on that rather bleak March day, a thing that can be planted by any of us during the coming autumn with an assurance of immediate effect next spring.  You know how truly right daffodils look in grass?  It may be a very obvious and orthodox way of growing daffodils, but I never care how obvious and orthodox a form of planting is, so long as it is satisfying for the eye and pleasing to the plant.

-Vita Sackville-West
April 18, 1954
More For Your Garden

I imagine daffodils would look rather interesting planted among the grass.  However, it is an idea like this which I read about or plan diligently all winter which slowly dissipates.  The haste of the season spins me away from doing what I’ve planned on doing all along.  I find myself scrambling to get my garden in order and plant as many things as I can so I feel the summer was not wasted.  But by the end of the summer, I look at my hodgepodge of a garden and wonder what went wrong.  I have finally discovered the problem.

Last spring, I planned on focusing all my energy on roses.  But as the season unraveled, I found myself coming home with other plants and seeds which distracted me from my previous goal; nursing a fabulous rose garden.

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I have discovered my problem lies with the short Michigan growing season.    As the snow fell outside my window yesterday, I suddenly remembered my original love for roses.   I bought six last year (pictured throughout this post) which all got put on the back burner as I hurried to collect other flowering plants that would bring me pleasure.  In this haste, I had forgotten my first love.  As a result of my increasing neglect, they began to suffer from black spot and other pests I struggled to control.

There is a group; The American Iris Society.  Amongst other gardeners I follow, they have an obsession with the Iris.   Everyday on Twitter, they share new pictures of a beautiful Iris I would otherwise never have the pleasure of seeing.  I had no idea the Iris made such fascinating color combinations and had such diverse growing seasons.  I admire these folks.  I’m sure they love other flowers too, but they love the Iris most.  Perhaps it is where their love for gardening first appeared.  They know where their focus lies, and their gardens are top notch because of their mutual patience with the flowers over the years.

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As nothing in the garden seems to give me greater pleasure, I would like to do it right this year and really focus on my roses.  Yes, I love my honeysuckle and my clematis very much (among others), so much so I could kiss them, but there is something about the high-maintenance rose.  It is not easy to love you back like other plants.  You must earn its love, work for its love.  Yes, they are prone to pest and disease, but when they bloom for you it is all the more fulfilling.  So I have determined, and you can take my advice or leave it, when planning a garden one should travel back to the beginnings of their love for gardening.  It is here you’ll find your true calling or at least refocus your efforts.

Ask yourself: What was it that drew me to the garden in the first place?
I think in figuring that out, you’ll find your purpose and perhaps rekindle your lost love.

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Winter Rebels

It is amusing, and also useful as a record of what to plant now, looking forward to twelve months hence, to make a compact little bunch of what may be found flowering out of doors in this drear empty month.  Prowling round through the drizzle with knife and secateurs, I collected quite a presentable tuzzy-muzzy.

-Vita Sackville-West
More For Your Garden
Nov. 15th, 1953

If you’ve read my post What Is A Tussie-Mussie?  you’ll know Vita is referring to a small bouquet of mixed flowers – a sampling of one’s garden.  Now, since the frost has come and gone and come again, it is almost impossible to find any flowers now.  However, there are plenty of spent flowers remaining.  Flowers which stand, brown and suspended on their stiff spikes will make striking displays for drying.  I implore you to take up this challenge and see what you can find out of doors.  It is a wonderful reminder as one hunkers down for the winter to gaze upon the little dried beauties with hope – it is but only three months away.

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My mother is quite funny, sometimes she’ll come up with ideas that have us rolling with laughter.   As we sat in the last blaze of summer sun at her cottage we contemplated the coming winter and she vowed, in jest, she would, “defy the seasons”.  She came up with many hysterical instances on how she would do this and we had a good laugh.  However, now it’s getting serious.  It will snow soon!   My mother’s ironic humor resonates and I think she was right; there is no better way to “defy the seasons” than by going out to pick a bouquet of flowers as the blistering icy wind blows.

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As you take up this idea and venture out keep your eyes open and use your imagination.  For instance, my uncle once made a sculpture out of our dried sunflowers and their incredibly sturdy stalks.  As for me, for weeks I have passed by a grouping of dried garlic chives on my run.  I soon got it in my head that I must have them.  They were beautiful spikes with balls of delicate seeds that seemed to glisten in the sun.  One morning I asked the owner of the property if I could have some.  He said I could take what I needed. 
With the holidays coming or rather in America, we have already begun, sometimes it’s fun to find spent blooms on the more woody stems or perhaps pine cones and spray paint them gold or silver.  They look very good stuffed in a Christmas tree or placed in a table setting.
Don’t be shy.  If you happen to walk by and see, for several weeks, spent blooms which are failing to be clipped, ask the owner if you can take some.  It’s the holiday season after all; a season of giving.  I’m sure they would love to share the wealth.

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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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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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