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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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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Bugbane: The Angel Of The *Fall*

Not often now, in my saddened old wisdom, do I get enticed by catalogue descriptions into ordering something which I know is almost bound to disappoint.  Yet from time to time I fall.  I do not regret this.  If one lost the capacity of falling, it would mean that one had passed from the trustful meadows of youth into the skeptical deserts of age, and that would be a pity for any gardener, since gardening is essentially a hopeful, optimistic occupation.

-Vita Sackville-West
February 7, 1954
More For Your Garden

Is she not amazing?  I fall deeper in love with her writing every time I pick up one of her books (I practically have them all).  Just when I think I have gotten use to her poetic prose and fanciful descriptions that waver between gardening and the meaning of life, I am struck again by her ability to encapsulate all that is true and meaningful beyond the garden itself.

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Yes I too make mistakes, or rather I’m sometimes disappointed with my choices.   This realization never happens right away however.   I think in most cases you just have to give it time.  For instance, I was unsure of my choice of the Bugbane or the Cimicifuga.   After a long spout of no luck in our shady front yard and after being told I would never be able to find any flowering plants for shade, I was pointed in the direction of the bugbane by a very knowledgeable nursery worker.  I was told it was slow to grow and that it may not flower for three years.

It was very small when I planted it.  I divided it into three or four other plants because the roots had grown so tight in the planter.  When I separated them with my clippers they faltered for a week or so but soon flourished and grew quite rapidly.  To my surprise, they did flower this year and I have the pleasure of seeing the beautiful blooms of the Cimicifuga, or if you would like to use its most recently changed name the Actaea Racemosa, during this time of the year when we gardeners thirst for a fresh surprise, a little color and a little fragrance.

 

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Speaking of fragrance, the Bugbane has an interesting one.  I would say it is that of sour vanilla, but it’s not exactly off-putting.  It rather draws the nose to its tiny white stamens again and again in order to pinpoint the scent exactly.

They like partial sun to shade and moist soil.  They are not picky about the nutrients or the acidity levels, they can flourish in all.   However, the more sun they get the more they will bloom, and the blooms will reach about 2-3 feet if not more.  I’m getting many blooms on mine and it is practically in full shade so that should tell you something.  Water them like you would any other new plant for the first year, then ignore them.  They are wild in their genealogy so given this fact they are more hardy and pest resistant like other wild plants.

 

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Bugbane has many names.  For instance, it is sometimes called black snakeroot.  Do not confuse the bugbane or black snakeroot with the white snakeroot.  The white snakeroot contains the toxin tremetol which causes tremors in cattle if ingested and if humans ingest the milk by an exposed animal or eat the meat they will get milk sickness.   It is known that Abraham Lincoln’s mother died of milk sickness when he was young.

The black snakeroot actually has many medicinal properties that frontiersman and Native American’s used.  It is said to repel bug bites, and help calm menopause and acne just to name a few.  However, I’d suggest going to your local drug store for the remedies of said afflictions.

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The bugbane is indeed the saving grace, an angel if you will of the autumn and I too was victim to the “fall” as Vita explains, but I have yet to be disappointed.  I will wait, and in the spring I will spread the plants out to create more of a happy crowded appearance mixed with the astilbe I mentioned in my post Astilbe & The Romanovs.  Since its leaves are still green and the astilbe look dead (which I hope isn’t the case) adding these to the mix would add interest and color for all seasons.  When they really get going they will be gorgeous.

Larry Hodgson describes in his book, Making the Most of Shade that planted in numerous groups, the bugbane will present a striking show – like roman candles set against their dark green foliage shooting up toward the sky.  I will do my best to reproduce this effect for you and all passersby in the coming years.

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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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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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Just In Time For Tea

The marvel of Peru, Mirabilis jalapa, is familiarly called four o’clock, because it opens only at tea time and shuts itself up again before breakfast.   It is an old-fashioned herbaceous plant, seldom seen now, but quite decorative with its mixed coloring of yellow, white, red, or lilac, sometimes striped or flaked like some carnations.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening
1958

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Indeed, the four o’clock flowers show themselves every afternoon and until morning, then shut themselves away again. I suppose they are conserving themselves for the next show.  It’s rather intelligent of them to expel their energy only after the blaring heat of the sun has gone.

I’ve found that mine don’t open until dusk.   They’re scent is subtle, but increases as it gets dark. It is a sweet fresh scent that I can’t really describe specifically.   Next time I happen to catch it wafting through the humid night air I’ll do my best to detect it.   You can cut it, the blooms will open for you.  But to get its second bloom, one must be diligent to trim the stem every few days to keep it fresh.

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I planted them last year.   My Grandma had given me some left over seeds and I thought I should try them.  Assuming they were annuals, as told to me by the package, I planted a few seeds to try my luck, jam-packing them in a neglected corner.  They came up yellow that August.  Not that impressed, as yellow was not my favorite color last year, I vowed not to plant them again and didn’t give them much thought after that.

Imagine my surprise when the pesky things found their way into my garden this year!  I failed to take note of their self-seeding quality.  Happy in their random places they have found for themselves, they are popping up everywhere in the most unexpected nooks and crannies.  But a couple pink plants have emerged!  Magenta we’ll call it, as my daughter argues it has a purple tinge.  I rather like the places they’ve turned up.  They seem to keep politeness and punctuality about them – showing themselves on schedule every day and not treading on my rose bushes or my other coveted plants.  Perhaps they know best as they’ve shown up in spots that were left bare by me and now my garden has filled out in a lovely way.

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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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