It has been so unseasonably warm here that temperatures have regularly reached 70 degrees Fahrenheit all December. As the New York Times points out, gardens and gardeners are confused: December Heat Tricks Flowers Into Putting On Spring Display. Today’s Saturday Snippet is from Rosemary Verey’s classic, The Garden in Winter.
To teach yourself to ‘see’ your own garden in winter, look first at the trees and shrubs planted for their spring or summer flowers, their handsome leaves, their autumn colours. In their winter guise they will have a different allure. Each has its own winter character, with buds of varying shape, size and texture… The one thing they all have in common is that they are waiting for spring’s warmer days.
This year, those warmer days arrived in December. Blooming in my garden right now are: mahonia, camellias, roses (David Austin’s lovely yellow Teasing Georgia), hellebores, chrysanthemum, winter daphne and Japanese apricot. Dozens of confused narcissus have sent up green shoots. My containers are still blooming with pansies, snapdragons, begonias and oxalis triangularis. The brilliant red twigs of the coral bark Japanese maple, whose lower branches I twined with Christmas fairy lights, shine in today’s sunlight against the dark evergreen leaves of the southern magnolias. It is as if summer and fall never really ended, except for the autumn leaves, but winter and early spring have joined them.
Photo: The New York Times.
The slender green shoots of Ipheion uniflorum have popped out between the flagstones at the back of our old garden, visible now that most of the leaves have fallen from trees and shrubs. Unlike most spring bulbs, the starflower sends up its leaves in the fall, where they add an unexpected spot of soft green to the autumn tones of red, orange, yellow and brown. In early spring, they will be covered in small, star-shaped blossoms of light blue that give off a soft, pretty fragrance when left alone. If the leaves are bruised, they smell like garlic. Scott Ogden has this to say, in his wonderfully useful book Garden Bulbs for the South:
After the new year, any brief spell of sunny weather will coax these leafy clumps into bloom. The flowers are a cheerful pale blue and resemble six-pointed stars. Once they begin to appear, the blossoms continue steadily into March.
These lovely blue flowers present a perennial mystery for gardeners who discover them in the grass. They seem to have created consternation for botanists as well. The usual questions are “What are they?” and “Where did they come from?
I’m not fussed about what they are or where they came from. In my garden, what they are is lovely and welcome. Where they came from is random, as they spread so quickly and readily by offsets, seeds and runners. I’m always happy to see their harbingers, the tender green shoots of their leaves!
Photo: Wendy Kremer, finegardening.com.
I am half English and when I was a child, my English relatives often sent me and my siblings classic English storybooks as gifts. So I grew up on Arthur Rackham, C.S. Lewis, Elizabeth Goudge, Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton. J.M. Barrie — and Cicely Mary Barker, author and illustrator of the Flower Fairies series of little books. They helped inspire and sustain my love of flowers and gardening, as I could imagine the fairies while my parents taught me how to plant perennials, weed flowerbeds and pot up bulbs.
Today, I will be planting winter aconite tubers, as well as various narcissus, and ajuga reptans to fill in among the flagstones of a new, small patio and pathway. Today’s Saturday Snippet:
The Winter Aconite Fairy
Deep in the Earth
I woke, I stirred.
I said: “Was that Spring I heard?
For something called!”
“No, no,” they said:
“Go back to sleep. Go back to bed.”
“You’re far too soon;
The world’s too cold
For you, so small.” So I was told.
But how could I
Go back to sleep?
I could not wait; I had to peep!
Up, up, I climbed,
And here am I.
How wide the earth! How great the sky!
O wintry world,
See me, awake!
Spring calls, and comes; ’tis no mistake.
Cicely Mary Barker
Illustration: Cicely Mary Barker (copyright The Estate of Cicely Mary Barker).
A wonderful book by veteran gardener and garden writer Ann Lovejoy, whose books on perennials and mixed borders are among my very favorites, Fragrance in Bloom sums up this season very well:
For gardeners, fall is less an ending than the beginning of another great cycle of work and rest and fulfillment. In fall, we plant the bulbs that will illuminate the spring yet unborn. In fall, we dig and divide and recombine our plants into fresh combinations to enjoy next summer. In fall, we commit new plants to the ground, giving trees, shrubs and perennials a chance to make strong root growth before winter. In fall, we can relax and let our plants ripen into maturity before they sleep. Autumn is also glorious in its own right. As the night air cools, leaves catch fire, the tired greens igniting to lava reds, ember oranges, and smoldering copper. As the slanting daylight lengthens, it gilds the garden with a soft haze. Numinous and transcendent, the autumn light turns mess into magic. When we can appreciate that the slumping, seed-spangled demise of summer’s magnificence is truly magnificent in itself, it becomes easier to stop being so concerned about grooming away every browning leaf. Instead, we can relax and simply revel in autumn’s richness.
I love Barbara Damrosch’s book The Garden Primer. It may have been the very first gardening book I got as an adult, with my own small patch of earth to cultivate, trying to remember the lessons my parents had taught me when I helped out with their gardening tasks. One of my favorite quotes: “Good gardening is very simple, really. You just have to learn to think like a plant.” Given that fall is the best planting season for most plants here in Zone 7, this week’s Saturday Snippet is about giving plants a good start:
If you are a Freudian you believe that birth traumas and subsequent experiences in people’s early lives can mark them for life. If you are a non-Freudian you consider this hogwash, holding that everyone is born with a certain personality, and beyond that your life is what you make of it.
I’m not entirely sure which theory is true where humans are concerned, but with plants I’m a Freudian all the way. Yes, a rhododendron is born a rhododendron and will always curl up its leaves self-protectively on cold winter days, only to become an extroverted mound of bright-flowered joy when it gets sufficiently warm in spring. But how large that mound is, and how glorious its display, depends on you, its parent, who can start it off by cramming its little roots into a stingy hole filled with meager soil, or give it a wonderful environment rich in love, care and compost.
Photo: Berkshire Botanical Garden
Though I do not myself have a Japanese garden, I love them and I have a newly planted grove of Japanese maples. In anticipation of their fall foliage soon, here is an excerpt from The Art of Japanese Gardens: Designing and Making Your Own Peaceful Space, by Herb Gustafson.
The traditional Japanese garden brings to the viewer a vast array of symbolic representations…. The Japanese “niwa” is special because of its double meaning as both “garden” and “place.” It is not merely an artistic arrangement of rocks, trees and water. The very shape of these elements cries out for recognition on a higher plane. We see the combinings of the primitive earthly elements: the air above and the water below. The earth is represented by the skeletal structure of stones protected by the integument of topsoil. Our origin in fire is seen as beacons to our future placed in the stone lanterns to guide us among the “rati”, or path. Our gardens can become a profound representation of the universe as a whole.
Photo: Pacific Horticulture, January 2012.
After a weekend visit to my elderly mother, I have been thinking about how much she and my late father taught me about gardening. He loved to grow vegetables, but also lots of spring and summer bulbs. She preferred annual flowers and flower arranging, which she did as a volunteer at our church for many years. Like my father, I love spring bulbs and have been susceptible to growing “the $64 tomato”. Like my mother, I love bright flowers and the kinds of roses and perennials that make for beautiful arrangements.
A distinguished Atlanta-based journalist, the late Lee May, wrote a memoir several years ago called “In My Father’s Garden.” It is a memoir of his life, his career, his family and his gardens, starting with the childhood garden at his father’s home. My mother gave me a signed copy of the book when she heard him speak on a book tour; his note says: “Welcome to my garden! Enjoy!”
From his memoir:
Everyone’s garden is magical. Each has the power to energize you when you think you have no energy left, to calm jangled nerves and to offset a bad-karma day. And each garden has unique properties, some of which are known only to the person who lives with it, some of which are apparent to everyone. When someone shares a garden with you, invites you in, it becomes more yours each time you go there. With each visit, it becomes more familiar, like a house you know, or a person.
You can read more about Lee’s father and how their shared love of gardening brought reconciliation after decades apart here: Lee May’s Gardening Life. What unique properties does your own garden have, known only to you?
Photo: Lee May.
Recently I have been blogging about fragrance on my other blog, Serenity Now. My most recent “Fragrance Friday” was about ginger lilies, so for today’s snippet, I thought I would share a passage from a favorite small gardening book: Fragrant Flowers of the South, by Eve Miranda. In addition to the helpful information it contains for gardeners in Zones 7-11, it is illustrated not only with photographs but also some lovely watercolors of individual flowers.
The fragrance of the South is as much a part of its heritage as the stately antebellum homes and the mystic legends of the bayou. It’s the wild azaleas sweetening the swamps and hammocks; it’s the Cherokee rose entwining itself along an ancient, weather-worn, split-rail fence; it’s the cool evergreen majestic magnolias, dusting the air with heady perfume from their pristine white flowers. The special fragrances of Southern gardens are gifts that we Southerners share with the rest of the world, filling their memories of their visits to the South with the fragrant treasures we so often take for granted.
Of course when we decide to fill our homes and gardens with fragrant plants, we know that their perfume never totally belongs to the one who plants and tends them. For plants know no private bower, no property lines, but share their wealth from room to room, indoors; and outdoors, their odor jumps over hedges and walled fences, glides down sidewalks and slips into another’s window.
There is an unmistakable rhythm in the gardening year. With the coming of early spring, the garden moves from sparse bloom into the explosive profusion of midsummer. The movement from this midsummer bounty of bloom toward winter reverses the cycle, turning it back toward sparseness. Autumn inevitably is a season of winding down, of ceasing, but its changes are very slow and gradual, and if plants are chosen carefully for what they bring to the garden at this time of year, fall can also bring bounty — and I don’t mean only its harvest of apples and pumpkins … The problem with our gardens in autumn lies not in the absence of plants that are lovely then but in our neglect of the season, our failure to widen our knowledge and exercise our imaginations, and our sticking to old, well-trodden, and familiar paths.
Allen Lacy, The Garden in Autumn.
“September Charm” japanese anemone. Photo: Ramblin’ Through Dave’s Garden.
I have been trying to learn the art of bonsai for the last few years (off and on, as it is time-consuming when done well, and I have many other demands on my time). A favorite book is Bonsai Aesthetics: A Practical Guide, by Francois Jeker.
All of us can, in some modest way, create something beautiful. Therefore, the aesthetics of bonsai is something learned. The Japanese codified this art and formalized the rules. Let us try to absorb and understand them. These rules will quickly appear natural to us because they were born from observing nature. The day will come when, with rules forgotten, we will be able to explore new paths.”
I think that captures the advanced stage of most arts: once the artist has mastered the fundamentals, s/he is free to explore and express the individual vision with the depth and nuance of having all the tools. Here is one more favorite “snippet” from Jeker’s book, relating a conversation he had with legendary bonsai master John Naka:
One day I asked John Naka if he talked to his trees. He made a look as if he was angry: ‘Who do you take me for? Bonsai has nothing to do with superstition! Of course I don’t speak to them!
I am content with listening to them …’
I think I need to spend more time listening to trees.