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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Why Love The Iris?: An Interview with the American Iris Society

I would like to…render thanks now to this graceful iris which arises from reedy stems in delicate flower-heads of dark purple, lavender, and white.  It varies in its colour[sic], and that is one of its most attractive characteristics.

-Vita Sackville-West
More For Your Garden
June 27th, 1954

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If you’ve read my post, Snatching Velvet in the Night, you’ll know I always wanted irises for my garden but thought they were too expensive; not enough bang for my buck.  Now, I have some, courtesy of a neighbor, but still stand perplexed by the absolute obsession some people have for this flower.  I asked my friends at the American Iris Society to explain their passion in hopes it might ignite in me a greater respect.  I spoke with Andi Rivarola, photographer and social media manager for the AIS in regards to the iris and what he has to say was very interesting.  He says it was the blue hues of the iris which drew him especially:

In nature blue is rare and unique, and this definitely made an impact on me. Of course there’s no color limitation on irises, they are available in yellow, red, black, brown, white, purple, etc.”

As far as blue goes, Vita has written about the difficulties of finding the perfect shade of blue.  I think Andi is right, the irises tower above all others in the color department.  Here is what else he had to say in our interview:

Me – “As I’ve written before in my posts, I admire the American Iris Society because they’ve chosen, over all others, the iris as their focus and their first love.  So I wonder what makes the Iris so special?”
Andi – “For me, irises are special because of their very form and variety of color.  Most flowers have a centered focus and a round type form – petals come out of this center, just as the daylily or rose. The iris has a vertical form, some petals go up while others go down (standards and falls). Besides this, irises truly have the colors of the rainbow. I was truly impacted by the blue iris. Many irises are blue, for example dark blue like, tall bearded iris ‘Navy Blues,’ or light blue like, ‘Above the Clouds.’

 Me- “I like to time my garden so something is blooming all year.  It seems the only irises I’ve seen bloom in late spring.  Is there an iris for spring, summer and fall?”
 Andi -“Most irises bloom only in the spring, but there are some that also bloom other times of the year they are called rebloomers. The reblooming feature is part of their genetics, and so, no amount of water, fertilizer or weather conditions will make one rebloom; either they have “the gene” or not. Several hybridizers are now focusing on this, so that more gardeners can grow and enjoy them year round. “

 Me- “I see the American Iris Society website has a list of the best places to shop for rhizomes.  Is there one variety you’d recommend?  Perhaps one many people haven’t seen before?”
Andi – “The American Iris Society is an umbrella for several other societies, including SIGNA (Species Iris Group of North America), the Spuria Iris Society, the Siberian Iris Society, the Society for Louisiana Iris Society, the Japanese Iris Society, etc. I would recommend exploring the unusual, such as species irises, and/or beardless irises. They are also really beautiful and deserve much more attention.”

 Me – “Which variety is your personal favorite?”
Andi – “I’m very partial to spuria irises. In my area, Southern California, they grow very well, and are much easier to care for than bearded irises. They come in a variety of colors, and they last much longer in a vase if you bring them indoors.”
Thank you Andi!  It was so nice of you to take a moment out of your busy day to answer my questions.

When I look up the irises Vita had in her garden, the chrysographes, douglasiana, graminea, innominate, japonica, sibirica, and the stylosa – just to name a few, they all seem to be miniature versions of what I have seen growing.  However, as I snuck around the neighborhood yesterday, creeping into my neighbors weedy pathways and mulched landscapes, I found something interesting.  Tucked in the corner of my neighbor’s neglected garden was a species which resembled the iris sibirica of Sissinghurst.  According to Andi Rivarola, my suspicions were correct, it was an iris sibirica or Siberian iris.  One of Vita’s iris’.  Growing in such an awkward spot, I can only imagine it was a remnant of a by-gone era.  That property used to be the old schoolhouse for my neighborhood 100 years ago.  Perhaps a teacher planted iris sibirica for her beloved students long ago.  Maybe there were other flowers there too, but this is all that remains.

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On another note, you might remember from my post, History’s Peony: A Search & Rescue, a different neighbor was tearing down his historic home; what used to be the neighborhood general store.  From that property, I dug up a 100 year old peony, but also asked permission to take some old iris rhizomes.  I didn’t know their color or variety, which made it more fun.  They bloomed this weekend an interesting yellow, purple and mauve-brown and they smell like black licorice and grape candy.  They pair nicely with the allium and the green foliage of my hydrangea.  I really enjoy seeing them out my window each morning.

I think I might grow to love the iris after all.

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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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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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The Object Of My Disenchantment

There are few more repaying plants.   Rabbits dislike them; their flowering season extends through May and June; they last for a week or more as picked flowers for the house; they will flourish in sun or semi-shade; they will tolerate almost any kind of soil, lime-free or otherwise; they will even put up with clay; they never need dividing or transplanting; in fact, they hate it; and they are so long-lived that once you have established a clump (which will not be difficult) they will probably outlive you.  Add to all this that they will endure neglect.

-V. Sackville-West
In Your Garden: 1958

What Vita said is all very true.  So why have I been indifferent to our four peony plants growing around our house?  Let me explain, perhaps we’ll both learn something.

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For years I’ve been disenchanted by peonies, particularly our peonies.  I never paid much attention to other’s plants to correct my assumption that peonies are unimpressive in their flowering.  Their foliage was outstanding, but the blooms?  Almost nonexistent.   Our largest produced only four blooms this year, and another plant, only one, while the other two continually produce nothing every year.

Surprisingly, I never gave it much thought as to why our plants were at odds with the consistently generous plants of our neighbors.  However, it struck me last night when preparing for this post that we might be doing something wrong.  I read a little passage from Vita which states, “Never cut [them] down“, very seriously and in italics!  Then I realized our problem.

As I recall, for years we have been cutting them in autumn.  Now mind you, I didn’t give two hoots about gardening up until three years ago (I was raising toddlers), and even then, never paid attention to the peonies because they never produced much of anything.  But here was the problem:

My husband chopped them and I didn’t care because they never produced many blooms. So this cyclical pattern began where my husband chopped them every year and I sat back not caring because they never bloomed anyway. But they never bloomed because he was chopping them.  You see where we goofed?

 

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So this fall I will say no to chopping them down, and hopefully next year they will produce more blooms and I will acquire a new opinion.   I have however, always liked cutting them for bouquets.  They do very well, (lasting over a week) and will add fragrance to an entire room.   I have always liked this quality about them.  They smell wonderfully nostalgic to me-like sweet lemon, and remind me of Victorian front porches dappled with morning sun.

Thank you for reading…

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