What Books Can Do…

The more one gardens, the more one learns; and the more one learns, the more one realizes how little one knows.  I suppose the whole of life is like that: the endless complications, the endless difficulties, the endless fight against one thing or another, whether it be green-fly on the roses or the complexity of human relationships.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

It’s about time to prepare my rose bushes for the summer.  They already budding.  Michigan’s weather has been strangely mildly this winter which has caused the flowers, bulbs and trees to burst forth their early buds.  I’m praying we don’t get an ice storm.  I should be researching and learning about what to do with them, but I haven’t because I’m still in hunker down mode.  Although the winter has been mild we still get our cold days that make me want to curl up and read a book.   So, I have read many so far this winter but what to read next?  Usually I let the spirit guide me, or a book idea I have will flush out one in particular.

“The more one gardens, the more one learns; and the more one learns, the more one realizes how little one knows.”  I like to think this also applies to reading and continuing one’s education which works to brighten one’s curiosity.  I have a library of many books.   The problem however, with owning so many books is the perplexity of what to read next.  It comes over me and I stand agape at my shelves pulling different ones – reading a couple lines, hastily replacing them with an idea of when to commit myself… I know what I would read again if only I’d allow myself, but what of these other stories?   My next favorite could be among them!  Their contents are a mystery and it is always a risk for me to delve into the unknown.  Only dangerous because once I start I must continued until the tedious end, even if it’s not to my taste.

In a couple weeks I’ll go to Chattanooga, Tennessee to visit the battlefield.  I began studying the Civil War in seventh grade when I read a book entitled Red Cap.  Something drew me to the book.  What was it that made me pick it up off the library shelf when I was twelve and furiously read every word?  What was it that struck me as a young child when I read the tragic story of Ransom Powell and his comrades?   I was so touched by their story that it ignited in me a flame of respect and understanding, as well as a thirst for all knowledge of this violent war.
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 So with this trip on my mind I suppose I should delve into my arsenal of research books.  I have many and usually by the time we get to the site my husband and I have a general knowledge of how the battle went down.   Unless one visits the site however, it is hard to capture the scope of footwork involved as well as the lay of the land.

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When we go to a battlefield the first thing I do is visit the Civil War Trust website and watch the marvelous animated map of the battle.  You can find their whole list of animated maps here.   Then I delve into my volumes of Battles and Leaders of the Civil war which is a first-hand collection of memoirs and letters from all battles and skirmishes.  After scouring the index of all my memoirs I then tap into the index of my 53 volumes of the Southern Historical Society Papers which documented every detail of the Confederacy.  I mean EVERY detail.  It even includes locations of where legs and arms are buried.  This collection was a gift from my parents and I cherish it very much.  Not only are the books beautifully gothic but they smell of old paper with a smack of cigarette smoke – I’m guessing from the previous owner.

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This is the wonderful power books have.  One book transformed my whole life.  I became more interesting and I became interested and curious.  With every fact there were counter facts and myths which I endlessly researched to debunk.   There were biases and shame on men who didn’t deserve their worth to be judged poorly by history’s malice.   Studying the war is an occupation that has kept me occupied for decades and will continue to do so until my death.  What a wonderful gift from such an unexpected source; a child’s book.

 What books have you read that peaked your interest and transformed your life?

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Coming Home…

We have been warned that there may be a shortage of certain flower seeds after the unnaturally wet and sunless summer of 1954, and that it is therefore even more advisable than usual to order in good time.

-Vita Sackville-West
More For Your Garden
January 2, 1955

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I haven’t written in a few weeks.  During my time away, I was working on a couple books but through the toil of turning words, characters, and plotlines, I acquired an unprecedented lack of interest for all things green.

After reading the letters of Vita to Virginia Woolf I put Vita down for a while, her books sat on my shelf unopened.    I became so entrenched in my own writing I completely forgot the garden.   It went alright for a while.  Some of what I wrote turned out well and I was proud to call it my work.  But the creative juices eventually ceased for lack of nourishment and writer’s block hit me.  I wondered what had happened to spur the drought.  I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, thinking the prose would inspire something in me, but it had the opposite effect.  If anything, it spurred a desperate yearning to be a better writer and work more intensely on my craft.  Forget the garden all together for there is real work to be done.

The writings of Virginia Woolf make everything I’ve ever written seem trivial and frivolous.   She holds a profound understanding of humanity at a distance, yet so close to the chest.  She writes with a cold intensity that could only be matched in warfare, yet soft like a passing thought or a summer’s breeze.  How does she do it?  The word genius comes to mind – that word which separates the masters from mere tradesman.

I finished the book last night; placed a four star review on goodreads and lifted Vita’s More For Your Garden off my nightstand.   Reading just a couple lines brought me home again and I instantly remembered why I was drawn to her in the first place.   Vita Sackville-West is my muse and my inspiration – not only for the garden, but for my writing.   She takes nothing away from her readers.  She will not strip you down and smugly examine you.   Instead, she will let you be just as you are, but nurture your growth.  Right there with you, she’ll hold your hand through the journey; a comfort and a joy.   She is a reminder of the consistencies in nature – the earth will always smell like earth, a rose will perpetually surprise you with its beauty, and if you cut a branch it will sprout anew.

Vita possessed the grounding element which Virginia lacked.  On the other hand, Virginia possessed a keen understanding of the human condition which Vita lacked.  I find this balance in their writing useful for my own.  However, there was nothing more refreshing than opening Vita’s little garden book after so long a winter; like a sudden warm breath of freesia and jasmine in the cold.  Indeed, it is good to be home.

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To The Jungle…

…As monks will seek in contemplation’s cell
An increment of quiet holiness,
Prolonged novena,- so the Winter gives
A blameless idleness to active hands
And liberates the vision of the soul.
Darkness is greater light, to those who see;
Solitude greater company to those
Who hear the immaterial voices; those
who dare to be alone.

-Vita Sackville-West
The Garden; 1946

 

In winter, one tries to distract oneself with projects.  I have begun another novel (I just finished my second).  This one takes place in a jungle- somewhere, I haven’t quite placed it.  I’ve been watching documentaries on South Africa, South America and I threw in one about the Galapagos while I was at it.  I’ve also been listening to a lot of African music and much of Yo-Yo Ma’s silk road project-which takes its listener all over the world and back.  So I don’t quite know yet- and I may just shelf it all together.  Right now, I’m praying for focus since I have another story I shelved a year ago.  To which do I devote my time?   Perhaps spending so much time with my orchids is putting this foreign jungle in my head.  Should I shake it? or let it be?
But the orchid set in rock and rooted in trees – like nature’s intention: their white, moth-like flowers cascading…
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I had a dream last night that my spring bulbs were coming up.  However, I feared not all would not make it.  Then Vita’s voice reassured me by repeating a little known fact: some take two years to really get going.   But what about my hellebores?  Have they begun… I woke up on my way to find them – waking to the harsh reality that I will not find them for another nine weeks.  So again, I must find a little delight indoors.

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I was delighted yesterday when I saw my chocolate oncidium had shot up a flower spike and will bloom soon.  I have not seen its little dark purple flowers (above) for a year now.  It is called “chocolate”, because their intoxicating fragrance is just like chocolate with a hint of sweet vanilla.   Oncidiums are much like Phalaenopsis where they must be watered once a week and they require a similar atmosphere and light.

The Dendrobium Nobile also require water once a week, sometimes twice a week depending on how dry it is.  They also require a lot of sun and humidity.  But in order to bloom they need a six week drought period.  Mine bloomed two weeks ago…

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If you have more than one orchid, watering can be a dreadful task-especially if you have to fertilize or if you are using special water.  In my case, I use distilled.  Distilled water is an extra expense and one not to be wasted.  In order to conserve as much as possible I pour a quarter of the gallon-perhaps more, into a large bowl.  First I let my tillandsia soak a bit (but that is another post).  One by one I bring my orchids to their bath; oldest to newest.  Why in this order?  Because my newest are still being monitored for disease.   I water them last in order to keep them isolated from my healthy orchids.   After you’ve had them in your possession for two-three months and you don’t see any evidence of pests or disease, the order will not matter.
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So I will set them in the bowl, and taking a tinier bowl or cup, I’ll lift water onto the roots (only) until they are thoroughly soaked.  I will then let the orchid drain and put it back in its decorative pot by a window.  After watering, some experts recommend you place a blooming orchid exactly in the position you found it so it will not twist its flowers – they will do this to find light.

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It’s simple once you have a little routine established.  I have a friend who is mother to forty orchids-all phalaenopsis.  She places them all in the bath tub and gives them a “bath” literally.  It’s really what is easiest for you.  She and her orchids don’t seem to mind the chlorine water we have here in Detroit.   I’m sure most orchids can handle regular tap water so make it easy on yourself if you’d like.   They are easy to care for and their blooms last for months – really a great way to occupy yourself until spring.  Perhaps in the meantime they will inspire me to finish what I’ve started in my novel.  Back to the jungle I go…

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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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Indoor Gardening: A Happy Journey Through Winter.

The fashion for growing plants indoors is very understandably on the increase.  The lead had been given to us by the Scandinavia countries, where the climate must be more difficult to manage than our own, and where the inhabitants go to the most elaborate lengths to ensure a supply of living vegetation and greenery in their rooms throughout their long winter.  It is a pleasant fashion, and I hope it never proves to be ephemeral.

-Vita Sackville-West
November 14th, 1954

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Rather on the contrary to Vita’s fear, I think indoor gardening is on the rise.   I myself, don’t think I could live without the pleasure of gazing at my blooming houseplants all winter long.  I feel so blessed to have a collection that provides me with something at all times.  I no longer dread the coming of winter because I know my work indoors will begin.  Just because the roses are gone and the dahlias are dug up doesn’t mean I won’t have flowers.  In fact, I will have plenty.

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Forget fresh flowers in each room- what about live flowers instead?  With all the positive research which proves plants provide clean air for our stagnant wintery houses why wouldn’t one want a plant to bring some new oxygen and color?

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My love for flowers began with the cactus- if you can believe it.  They were inexpensive and there little pots did not impose on the limited space in our home.  However, as I was trying to roll myself out of a wintery funk, gazing upon one little cactus wasn’t good enough.  My broken spirit needed something more- something bigger than me.  Soon that little pleasure took the form of a therapeutic obsession which branched out into the interest of other plants and soon tramped off to expand itself outdoors.  I followed it willingly and found myself feeling the greatest pleasure.  I attached myself to a positive energy that spun all the heaviness away.


In the dead of winter, we can all get a little run down.  So when this happens, I venture off to my favorite place: Telly’s Greenhouse in Troy, MI.  Their collection of house plants is out of this world and the displays are nothing short of inspirational.  Stepping out of the cold and into their greenhouse (pictured above) one is immediately struck by the humidity and the most wonderful smell of wet dirt.  Find a nice greenhouse near you and make it your safe haven.

People tell me they kill cacti, succulents and orchids too.  I myself cringe at the times I threw phalaenopsis orchids away when their blooms died.  Not anymore.  I have one that has been blooming consistently (taking short breaks here and there), throwing up blooms since two years ago.  Don’t let anyone fool you, their care is not challenging.

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My latest achievement however, is getting my dendrobium to bloom this year.  I’ve been waiting two years and my hard work has finally paid off.  Since dendrobium’s and cacti need a drought period in order to bloom, they are such rewarding plants when they finally shoot up some color for you.  Indeed, they teach patience and perseverance.

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Sounds complicated and annoying to have to wait so long, but that’s the fun of it.  If you need a distraction or feel a bit heavy, get out into the garden and start with something simple.  I promise you, gardening can cure all mental ailments if you’re willing to be cured. Whether indoor or outdoor there is an endless amount of knowledge to learn and practice.  Be well this winter; allow the flowers to lift your spirit.

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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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