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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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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Life After Deadheading

My liking for gardens to be lavish is an inherent part of my garden philosophy.  I like generosity wherever I find it, whether in gardens or elsewhere.

-Vita Sackville-West
March 26, 1950

In the quote above she speaks of pruning.  From her books I gather that Vita thought pruning in the Spring a foolish way to go about the garden.  She referenced the Victorian gardens of abundance and the wild gayety of the flowers, able to stretch themselves to the sky.

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The gardens of the turn of the century up through mid-century established a habit of cutting their roses right down to the ground in order to achieve abundant blooms.  But in doing so they only stifled growth.  Vita argues that roses ought to be left alone in the Spring, and if you didn’t believe her she simple advised: “the only thing is to be bold; try the experiment; and find out.”

I do not prune my roses.  Instead, the only thing I do is deadhead them throughout their bloom season and in the spring to make the greens look more attractive.

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Deadheading is my favorite thing.  It’s therapeutic and it’s grounding.  I’ve heard when monks are upset or a little melancholy they are told to work in the garden until they feel better.  Deadheading is the perfect way to fidget while thinking out one’s problem.  But why should we cut off the spent flowers like I will do soon to my Floribunda Tuscan Sun above?

The rosarians whose books I’ve read fail greatly at one simple task. They order us: “deadhead at an angle facing away from the leaf a quarter inch above the leaf”.  They show pictures: “too much”, “not enough”. But why?  They never explain this.  Perhaps if they did we would be more apt to follow orders? Knowing what treachery might befall upon our precious blooms we might do as they say.

Let’s examine this:

WHY DEADHEAD?

Do you want your roses to grow rapidly? Would you like more blooms?  How about continual bright red baby leaves sprouting all summer long?  Deadheading is your answer.

HOW TO DEADHEAD:
The best thing I can tell you is to cut down to the fifth leaf set.  Spot the spent bloom, follow its stem downward until you see the first five leaf stem.  Cut it there at an angle, opening away from the leaf set. Why?  Because this technique gives the new stem room to spike out and from what I’ve read it can also produce stronger stems if this is done one-quarter inch above the leaf set. Like this,

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As you can see I’ve had some thrip and beetle damage.  This is the first year I’ve had problems with pests of this nature and they caught me a little offguard-please ignore.

Anyway, a week later you should have young leaves shooting out all over, making a pretty show of purple and bright green-almost as striking as the flowers themselves.

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Young life, a reminder of our excitement and the hope we carried into spring.  I can feel that again when I look at these new leaves of tender delicacy.  Do this and you will see.  You needn’t worry.  Soon you will have an abundance of blooms again, bringing a sense of accomplishment to you and the beauty of youth and hope to your garden once again.

 

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The Art of Conversation…

…Poison has done its work only too well.  In what agony, during the dark hours, have these miserable members of God’s Creation perished?

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden; 1958

I panicked when I saw the caterpillar damage on my rose bushes.  Easily distinguished by the large chucks of green taken from the leaves.  They came in flocks in the springtime and had their feast, leaving only a skeleton of foliage in their path.  Before I knew what was happening, the damage was done.  I wasn’t listening very well.

I sprayed with an insecticide but it was too late, many of the leaves had perished.  But with the catapillars gone I welcomed a new problem.  Variagated leaves, speckled and discolored, this malfunction left me distraught as all my research seemed to point to only two conclusions:  A vitamin deficiency, or a dreaded virus.

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Through these symptoms my roses had found speech.  But what were they trying to tell me?   What warning were they struggling to present?

After an inconclusive internet search, I took the leaves up to a couple nurseries.  One group of ladies told me it looked like a fungus.   Another told me it was probably insect damage and to keep spraying.

But who to believe?  I went ahead and bought the recommended fungus remover and a soaker hose as it’s really the only way to water new plants in this drought.  But I bought one more object to satisfy my own suspicion: a pH meter.  

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I had my suspicions; an intuition if you will, that if I fertilized perhaps all problems would be solved.  I’ve noticed the blooms have decreased greatly since spring.  Also a sign that it’s a vitamin deficiency.  Roses like an acidic soil and as you can see I have very low acid levels.  In the spring I gave them all a slow release fertilizer but I don’t think it is working fast enough.  So I’ll give them a little ‘snack’ of miracle grow throughout the summer and next year I’ll mulch with some manure to increase the nitrogen in the soil.

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It’s a grand experiment really. I have no idea what I’m doing as I’ve never dealt with inconsistencies before.  So here I am, yet again, learning something new. Yay!

One thing the roses are telling me is that their new growth is healthy.  This is a great sign.  To me, it points to a pest problem; an easy fix.  All other symptoms however, seemed a mystery,  and perplexed even the master gardeners with which I spoke.  But in the world of gardening, everything is learning by doing.  You have to be a detective and listen to the plant as well as your intuition.

As summer progresses, I’ll see if there seems to be more damage but I’m hopeful it’s not a virus.  If it is, God forbid it, I’ll have to rip out all my bushes and burn or tie them up in plastic bags, then I would have to replace all the soil before planting anything new.  Total buzz kill to summer’s euphoria.

Listening is precisely why gardening is an art form.  There is an art to listening; an art to conversation.  Coming up with a response that is both wise and applies directly to the point.   One must listen well because plants always have something to say.  If your plants could talk, what would they tell you and how would you respond?

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A Peculiar Fight For Turgidity

The tame, too smug, I cry;
There’s no adventure in security;
Yet still my little garden craft I ply,
Mulch, hoe, and water when the ground is dry…

-Vita Sackville-West
The Garden; 1948

 

 

The other day I was looking up odds and ends when I came across a word I have never heard.  It’s a word that has been rolling around in my mind for days as we are in desperate need of it.  Turgid, or swollen in reference to plants means they have a healthy amount of water hydrating their cells.  Imagine a plant whose leaves are plump and stand upright they way they ought to.  That is turgidity.

Yesterday, I did something rather peculiar.   It hasn’t really rained here for weeks and the trees are beginning to droop.   Everything is looking rather dull and dry.  Even my precious maple my husband planted as my Mother’s day gift is looking sad.

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Anyway, I was doing my daily watering of the garden when it struck me how dehydrated my neighbor’s lilac bush looked.  Its bright green leaves had lost their luster and they drooped and sagged with drought.

My neighbor rents.  They keep to themselves mostly.  We hardly speak.  But through my keen observation I know they rarely look at that end of the house.  They do the bare minimum to take care of the old plants surrounding the property.  Funnily enough, the rose bushes and iris’s looked quite healthy and turgid, but the grand lilac bush of many years was struggling.

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(Above: My neighbor’s neglected rose bush rests its arm on their old meter.)

A thought came to my mind as I stood watering my own plants, and a sly smile creep upon my face.  Stealthily I crept over and threw my hose under its dehydrated branches – turning it on full blast.  I left it there for a moment while I meandered about, falsely pondering my own precious flowers.

Despite my efforts to be cool however, I imagined her watching my every move from her kitchen window wondering what the hell I was doing, and wishing I’d mind my own business.

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(Above: My neighbor’s lilac the morning after I gave it a douse of water.  As you can see it could use a little more.)

But I believe her lilac bush is my business.  It’s all I see out my kitchen window and its large green leaves distract from the poorly painted black and white motif of their asbestos siding.  I thought for sure it might die and they would neglect to tear it out for years – leaving it in the ground to rot and turn brown; much to my sorrow.
I refuse to look at death out my window when I can prevent such a disaster.  So I must utilize the hose and sprinkler for now until the rains come again.  Bring on turgidity please!!

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An Ode To The Innocent Ones.

Strange were those summers; summers filled with war.
I think the flowers were the lovelier
For danger.  Then we lived the pundonor,
Moment of truth and honour, when the bull Charges and danger is extreme…

…Strange little tragedies would strike the land…

…when wrath and strength were spent
Wasted upon the innocent…

-Vita Sackville-West
The Garden; 1948

 

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Clover is indeed an innocent plant.  Innocent as the children who gather it, innocent as the ones only looking for that lucky mutation; the four leaf, which will grant security in all its forms, and equally as innocent as the ones only seeking love and friendship.

One afternoon, on my walk, I came across a field of clover in the park.  Its cream colored patches smiled and blotted the green with different shapes and patterns reminiscent of the gardens at Versailles.  This beauty struck me, perhaps more so, because I found my neighbor sitting in the middle of one, while her daughter pranced about making a bouquet of the little flowers.

With innocence abound, its beauty was enhanced all the more.  So I took some photos before the dreaded mower, or the landscaper’s guillotine, with his ignorant blade of precision and correctness destroyed my view.

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Perhaps it was all the lovelier for danger.  Life is the same, when danger feels close and fear reigns, little reminders of beauty and innocence can indeed be all the lovelier to behold.  In times of war, we should seek not to remember the destruction and destroyer, but instead strive to remember only the innocent ones and their smile.

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Dedicated to the innocent ones of the Orlando tragedy.