I think Easter is my favorite holiday. It hasn’t been swamped by materialism, as Christmas often is, and it doesn’t take months or even weeks of preparation. AND it includes flowers. Lots and lots of flowers. Many of my favorite flowers, including spring bulbs, lilies of the valley, white dogwoods, pink azaleas. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer has a beautiful blessing for gardens, recalling the special place of gardens during Holy Week:
Almighty and everliving God, whose Son Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene in a garden and called her to be the first witness of his Resurrection: we beseech thee to bless this humble garden wherein we have a remembrance of the mighty acts by which we have been saved; grant that all those who see it may ponder and adore the glory of the Cross and the mystery of his Resurrection and may sing with joy the victory hymn; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
But on Easter Saturday, the time between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, we should also remember that Jesus’ Passion began in a garden too, the Garden of Gethsemane. Gardens contain death and life, endings and beginnings, whatever the gardener’s or visitor’s beliefs. So whether you celebrate Easter or not, I wish you a peaceful day in a garden, wherever you may be.
Last weekend, I fulfilled my ambition of visiting Gibbs Gardens during daffodil season, when almost 30 million daffodils come into bloom on its hillsides. It was, as hoped, spectacular! And now I am the happy owner of a lovely book by Sara L. Van Beck, called Daffodils in American Gardens, 1733-1940. So today’s Saturday Snippet is taken from that book, quoting a nursery catalog and letter to customers from the now-gone Hastings Nursery:
We just wish you could see these Giants growing on the Hastings Plantation. We are growing hundreds of thousands and experimenting with about 100 different varieties. They bloom every spring and do fine in pots, boxes and bowls of water in the house during the winter and outdoors for the early spring beds, borders and lawn or garden plots. They make beautiful cut flowers. Daffodils just naturally do well in the South, whether you care for them attentively or whether you only set them out in the lawn. They are graceful and beautiful, rich in color and delightful for all flower purposes. Many friends plant our Daffodils by the thousands and come back for more and other varieties to add to the charm of their permanent home collections.
While I wait for real spring to arrive in my garden (as distinct from the false spring we had in December!), this post is a lovely reminder of January’s own beauty. Thank you, Susan Rushton, for more gorgeous photographs!
In honor of this January weekend’s blizzards and storms, and feet of snow in much of the Northeastern United States, as well as the new season of Downton Abbey airing this month, this week’s Saturday Snippet is from “The Head Gardeners; Forgotten Heroes of Agriculture”, by Toby Musgrave.
Ornate conservatories or winter gardens were an adjunct of any garden that claimed to be of note. They were sometimes attached to the house or detached and set in the pleasure grounds. These great glass structures were home to many exotic and tender new arrivals brought from jungles and tropical regions across the world. Indeed, be they tendder, half-hardy or hardy, the wealth of new plants brought to Britain by the plant hunters excited botanists and garden-owners, and provided head gardeners with a constant onslaught of challenges. These expensive treasures required careful and skilled nurturing to survive. Often in the vanguard of those attempting to cultivate such tricksy rarities, the head gardener had to rely on his experience, a modicum of experimentation and an ability to learn fast.
This week, I am quoting an author whose book I do not yet own: Anna Pavord, author of “Tulip” and “Bulb.” I need to own the latter. In middle age, I have realized that I have a few consistent passions toward specific kinds of plants. One of them is the family of bulbs and corms. I think what I love is the gift-like nature of bulbs: they are like little papery packages, hiding wonderful flowers within. I love the surprise aspect of not knowing exactly when their shoots will suddenly appear; and many of my favorite flowers come from bulbs: narcissus, crocus, amaryllis, lilies, etc. Bulbs work on their own timetables.
“At the heart of the whole business is the feeling that when we garden we abandon a timetable constructed around dentists’ appointments, car services and the possible arrival of trains, to plunge headlong into a completely different timetable, an immense and inexorable one entirely outside our control, ruled by the sun, the moon, the seasons.”
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.
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!
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).