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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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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What Is A Tussie-Mussie? 

A dear neighbor brought me a tussie-mussie this week.  The dictionary defines tuzzy-muzzy, or tussie-mussie, as a bunch or posy of flowers, a nosegay, and then disobligingly adds that the word is obsolete.  I refuse to regard it as obsolete.  It is a charming word; I have always used it and shall continue to use it, whatever the great Oxford Dictionary may say…

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden
February 26, 1950

The other night I set off to visit a friend.  We would share a bottle of wine and some conversation. According to the old rules of etiquette, one should never go to a friend’s house empty handed.  But what does one bring for a casual visit between friends when the wine is already supplied?  Having no time to venture into a store, I thought about my garden.

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 A garden gives us an abundance of thoughtful gifts throughout the summer.   And when summer is the time most people are out visiting neighbors and friends it seems the perfect setup.  There would be nothing better, in my opinion, than someone sharing a bit of their garden with me.

Vita has mentioned the gift of a tussie-mussie. I would consider a tussie-mussie a sampling of one’s garden, a bouquet of you will, that represents all that is in bloom at present.

So next time you’re to visit a friend, choose instead a gift from your garden, instead of purchasing an object of superficiality.   Rather, you’d be better off saving your money to buy more seeds, because best gifts are the ones nature brings.  

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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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