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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Vita’s Wish For Nasturtium…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hollyhocks That Grow On Trees?

Spring and summer are well provided with flowering shrubs, but it is a puzzle to know what to grow of a shrubby nature for colour in the late months of July, August, and September.  There are the hibiscus (Althea Frutex) which are attractive with their hollyhock-like flowers…

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden
June 25th, 1950

Everyday I run two miles with my dog and my kids in tow on their bikes, and everyday  I pass by the same bushes.  They sit in my neighbor’s yard oddly out of place toward the road.  I never realized these bushes were anything special until July rolled around.  With the heat of summer beautiful blooms began to emerge.

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Tall bushes they were, at least eight feet, with abundant blooms.  I thought immediately  I should plant several along my fence to block out my neighbor’s barking dog.  Perhaps the solution should come from these enormous shrubs of flowering beauty since they grow very tall and can live a life-time or more.

Indeed, they look like tree hollyhocks as Vita has mentioned in her books.  Miniature hollyhocks in fact, that come in a variety of color.  My neighbor has three, two white, and purple.  It was the white that caught me because I remembered seeing something similar in pictures of the white garden at Sissinghurst.

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At first I didn’t know what they were and I asked the neighbor if they were some sort of hibiscus.  She shook her head,  “No,” she said. “They are Rose of Sharon.”
This puzzled me because I thought for sure I was correct.  Being she is new to the neighborhood and had only just inherited those bushes I decided I would do some research before taking her word for it.  The name spelled out in my mind and I remembered Vita mentioning something about Rose of Sharon.  However, she does not refer to them as Rose of Sharon, rather she called them by their Latin name, Hibiscus Syriacus.   So we were both correct.

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Vita advises that they should be placed in the warmest sunniest spot you can find.  She often thought the spot she had hers could have been a tad more sunny. She says most, “are trained as a standard, with a great rounded head smothered in creamy flowers blotched with purple, giving the effect of an old-fashioned chintz; but charming as the hibiscus can be, I suspect that it needs more sun than it usually gets here, if it is to flower as we should like.  Perhaps I have been unlucky, although I did plant my hibiscuses-or should it be hibisci?- in the warmest, sunniest place.”

I think it would be a good investment when looking over shrubs to plant this fall to consider the Hibiscus Syriacus.  The flowers last quite a long time and in a warm, sunny place, as Vita suggests, its foliage will be full when it’s not in flower so you can use them to equally block a view while enhancing it.

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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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Astilbe & The Romanovs

People often ask what plants are suitable for a shady situation, by which they mean either the north side of a walk or house, or in the shadow cast by trees.  There are so many plants that no one need despair.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

Astilbe and the Romanovs, perhaps that will be my next book title.  I did somewhat draft a love story last year that took place in wintertime Russia.  For this piece however, we’re talking about a plant, not a flaxen haired blonde of Russian decent.  

As I’ve mentioned before, my husband and I have had some trouble with our front yard.  Everything we planted there seemed to die or resist flowering.  We face north and I did despair thinking I would have to stick to boring old hedges.  One nurseryman told me ‘sorry there is no hope.  You can only plant boxwoods and such’.  But Sir, I need flowers and color!

It now strikes me odd that a nurseryman would say such a thing, they are indeed many beautiful plants that will tolerate shade.  When I ripped out the holly bushes and planted them elsewhere I replaced them with Astilbe or False Spiraea.
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They are flowering now, and have already grown rapidly.  The variety I choose are the Chinese Astilbe or Purple Candle.  I’m told they will grow quite large.  I am hoping they spread out so I gave them room to do so.  Perennials are known to sleep, creep, and leap in three years time, but this Astilbe has grown very much just in the two months I’ve had it. I’m very excited to see what it does in three years.

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The one getting the most shade is doing the best, surprisingly.  Flowers need sun in order to bloom and they get just enough here I suppose – less than four hours.
It tickles me that the astilbe will let you know immediately if it needs water.  The little ends of its flower spikes will droop in the slightest drought.  So I have to keep an eye on them and water them constantly.

Their flowering is almost done, but the bees and other flying creatures have enjoyed them.  It seems they turn colors as the blooms progress and die.  Going from a bright, almost florescent purple, to a faded purple with a green underlay; very pretty.  

As I observed their faded blooms the other day, the Romanov family came to mind. I don’t know why.  Perhaps it’s the romantic nature of the faded purple that reminds me of this faded Royal family of Russia.  I find their history quite interesting, but perhaps I was reminded of them because their reign looked solid and eternal just as my astilbe blooms, then suddenly they are gone with a flash of light and with an exhaustion of energy.  So sudden it seems that my astilbe blooms should be dying; their blooms look so permanent and stable.  

I do suggest, by the way, reading some Russian history.  Rasputin, and the end of the Romanovs, for example was an interesting chapter.

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Anyway, they do have a fragrance.  It is sweet like clover.  I’m sure you could cut a flower spike, but why do this when their spikes are a bit sparse, unless of course your collection is large.  I can imagine they would droop in water anyway. Rather, I wonder if they would make a pretty dried flower?  I’ve read in this great book Making the Most of Shade by Larry Hodgson, that the author will not cut his spikes off in Fall.  Instead, he lets them remain unless he wants to use them in a dried arrangement.  He says, “They turn brown it’s true, but still add interest right into winter.”  He also suggests leaving the flower spikes, and they will collapse on their own just in time for Spring.

They have many benefits, beside being interesting to look at, they are also deer and bunny resistant.  There are many different varieties from which to choose, and they come in an array of colors and sizes.  I suggest planting a few in a dark unused corner and see how they do, you really would thank yourself in three years time.

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Fresh Eyes

Within minutes of arriving Vita was ‘flat in love with Sissinghurst’.  ‘The place, when I first saw it on a spring day… caught instantly at my heart and my imagination.  I fell in love at first sight…It was Sleeping Beauty’s Garden: but a garden crying out for rescue.’ Standing in the middle of the vegetable patch looking up to the Tower, she turned to twelve-year-old Nigel and said, ‘I think we shall be happy in this place.’

-Vita Sackville-West & Sarah Raven
Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden
Copyright; 2014

I’m a book lover.  Correction, I’m obsessed with books.  People will hear this and ask me what I thought of the latest best seller.  I haven’t read any of them.  I’m working my way up through time.  When I finally get to today’s best sellers they will be considered only a residue of our history. Like little creative bursts of the past, old and forgotten; just the way I like them.

We recently went to our family cottage for a week.  My book of choice was Vita’s novel The Easter Party.  I finished it in a couple days.  It was good, subtle but brilliant in its own way.  It was the first novel I ever read of hers.  It really gave me a glimpse into the inner workings of her mind.  She put her observance of flowers on hold and applied her skill to the observance of people instead.  I dare say she excels at both. 

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This one finished, I pulled out the second book I brought.  It was a gift from my husband for Mother’s day this year.  He’s so thoughtful; always giving the best gifts of thoughtful simplicity.  He gifted me, Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden.

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This book is very inspirational. So much so that when we returned home I saw my own garden with fresh eyes. 

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I was feeling Vita’s spirit all the more because I had immersed myself in her knowledge and life all weekend.  As I looked at my garden,  I saw where I could make some changes.  For instance,   I would like to pull out the marigolds and plant them elsewhere.  Instead, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a lavender hedge there?  Vita always sectioned off her gardens with hedges.  The lavender in the back of the garden have done very well and bloom consistently.  I think it would be perfect for my miniature garden to bring them forward.  I’ll make a note of it for next year. Vita had a garden journal where she often made notes of what she would plant/change the next spring. 

 I have about fifteen zinnia sprouts that need transplanting.  They will replace the marigolds this year.  They will create a tall hedge. One will have to step into my garden to peer at the lovely flowers- like a secret. 

About those marigolds: I have found, marigolds do not keep the bunnies out, nor do they deter moles, as these are still major pests in my little sanctuary.

Apart from these changes, this book also renewed my inspiration.  Every plant in all my gardens, even the ones frequently overlooked, seemed all the more precious and inspiring.

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Speaking of the usually overlooked: Do you know what this is?  I ventured over to our little wild garden and found this seed plant.  Perhaps you could tell me what it is called?  It looked to be something coveted for bouquets of another time, perhaps it would have been used as a country wedding bouquet with baby’s breath and wild geranium.  It was beautiful to me, although just a weed no doubt; forgotten and humbled by the more popular, somewhat like the books I read.  The little seeds that shoot off the stems are variegated red, pink and green.  If you know what it is called I would love to know.

I could feel what it must have been like for Vita to see Sissinghurst for the first time.  I too have fallen in love with my own grand ideas, falling in love with dilapidated or thrown away objects of our history.  Thrown aside and forgotten because they’re not in style or popular, and the owners haven’t the mind to be inspired by what they could make from the rubble.  

Vita was inspired by the history of Sissinghurst, and its dilapidation did not deter her in the least.  At first sight, the seed of what she could create was planted in her mind and she was lucky enough to make it a reality, thus creating her legacy…somewhat like the grand authors of classics whose prose stands the test of time. 

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Survival of the Fittest: Milkweed

The bees think that I have laid it for their especial benefit.  It really is a lovely sight; I do not want to boast, but I cannot help being pleased with it; it is so seldom that one’s experiments in gardening are wholly successful.

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden
June 18, 1950

A couple years ago we discovered a milkweed plant in our back garden.  Since, it has seeded many times over.  Once only considered a weed has gained a new appreciation in my book.  As I look at the many milkweed plants we now have I realize how beautiful their shapes are.  Indeed it should be grown in every garden.  Not good for cutting and bringing into the house, no.  They are strictly there for the bees and butterflies.

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I worried yesterday.  As the drought has caused everything to droop, I thought for sure the milkweed would die.  But in the wee small hours of the morning it cooled off and everything seemed to bounce right back.  Moisture evaporates from plants in direct sun forcing them to wilt faster.   My husband informed me however, not to fret about the milkweed, they are survivors.  Their roots tunnel themselves way down into the ground making them extremely hardy.

Aside from this, they practically force pollination.  They have slits in their tiny flowers in which the little legs of bees and other insects get stuck.  They can easily escape of course, but in the meantime, the milkweed has traded pollen with the winged creature.

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May I also comment on its scent?  Like honeysuckle and lilac.  It wafts through the air hoping to attract its soul mate: The Monarch Butterfly.

I believe the monarch butterfly must covet the milkweed more than any other creature.  The two practically share the same DNA as the milkweed creates a safe haven for its eggs and food for their baby caterpillars.  The caterpillars climb and eat, enjoying their happy feast the whole way.

The milk that is expressed out of the milkweed leaves (hence its name) is toxic.  The fat little caterpillar is not affected however, but instead takes on the milkweed’s toxicity.  It is this sap they have ingested since their birth that makes monarch butterflies poisonous to predators, thus solidifying their survival, making them as ‘fit’ as the milkweed itself.

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