Fragrant Abelia

“…do plant Abelia Triflora.  It flowers in June, grows to the size of what we used to call syringe [lilac], and is smothered in white, funnel-shaped flowers with the strongest scent of Jasmine.”

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden;
June 18th, 1950
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I waited all summer to buy the Abelia.  As you might know, shrubs are best planted in the fall.  I knew I had to have it, the scent of Jasmine is too irresistible.

Don’t be deterred by their condition in the fall, especially if it’s been sitting all summer in the nursery.  When I found it, the leaves had turned leathery and had been nibbled by pests.  The stems seemed unhealthy and were bent in peculiar ways.  Everyone passed it up as they clambered for the beautiful perfection of the blooming Rose of Sharron,  but I knew what the Abelia would do come summer.   The leaves, as you can see, are supple and green and its stems have now found their way to the sun.  The little flowers, which do resemble those of the Jasmine vine are pink and white; a beautiful contrast to its bright green leaves.  They start blooming right after the lilacs so it’s perfect for those of you “timing” your garden blooms.

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I love passing by and getting whiffs of its Jasmine-like scent.  Right now it is short and I have to bend over to catch it, but soon it will be right in my face.  I believe I choose the right spot.  All my scented flowers are planted along my back yard walking path so I can enjoy them.  So far, it has not been bothered by pests.  All my other bushes have been sprayed, but I haven’t had to touch the Abelia.  So, perhaps it has the added quality of being pest resistant?

Truly, it’s a beautiful plant.  Along with Vita, I too would recommend it, especially for those of you who would like something your neighbor doesn’t have, if we are comparing such things.

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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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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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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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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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Under The Catalpa Tree…

Travelers between Calais and Paris must surely have noticed the lumps and clumps darkening like magpies’ nests the many neglected-looking strips of trees along the railway line in the North of France.  Perhaps the neglect is deliberate; perhaps they pay a good dividend.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

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The one and only catalpa tree in our neighborhood sits by our sidewalk.  Belonging not to one individual but rather to the entire City itself.  It is somewhat neglected yet it continues to flower and thrive year after year.  Perhaps neglect is all the better for it.

It was a great surprise as I rounded the corner on my morning walk and was greeted pleasantly by its white orchid-like frills.  A happy sight, as it looks like a tree belonging to the wild tropics rather than our conservative state of Michigan.

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Rarely do we see trees flowering in June, but the Catalpa shares with us its blooms; throwing them down for weeks.  They send a fragrance of rosehip and honeysuckle floating through the humid air as you pass, and when the flowering is done, its seeds appear. Like giant vanilla beans, they hang and dangle until they too eventually fall, hoping to spread the fruit of their mid-summer labor.

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A tree with many good qualities indeed.  Their fragrant, deep blooms make for a fun hiding place for the little fingers of children.  A canopy of huge heart-shaped leaves provide a hiding place for animals during rain storms, and the wood is resistant to rot, making it the perfect material for railroad ties.

Every year, I can’t help but wonder why I do not see more of this unique tree growing in the park or elsewhere?  I have not the slightest clue as to the origins of this one specimen.   I’m wondering now, how it came to be? Why on earth was it planted that close to the sidewalk but just off the property line of our neighbor’s?  Was it planted deliberately or did it seed there by accident?  It really is the only one I know of in this area.   Perhaps I haven’t been looking up enough.  Perhaps we need to plant more.

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