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).
Today’s assignment: describe where I write. I like to write in any of the rooms that look out over my garden. That could be the sunroom, on the main level of our house, or the master bedroom upstairs, or a small study off the bedroom. All have walls that are almost entirely windowed, to let in as much light as possible. The master bedroom and study also each have a built-in window seat that runs almost the whole length of that wall, and under them are built-in bookshelves where I keep many of my hundreds of gardening books (some of which I quote in my “Saturday Snippets” on this blog). Our house is built on a slope, so the sunroom actually sits a full story above the garden, which gives a wonderful view over the flowerbeds and shrubs, and creates the impression of being in a treehouse among the other trees. The bedroom and study are yet another story higher. Our lot is not large, but it is deep and the plantings are mature, so the tall trees around the perimeter make it seem larger than it is and conceal surrounding homes from view.
Right now the foliage is changing color and I am looking out at a tapestry of green, red, orange, yellow and brown. It looks much as it did when we brought our first baby home from the hospital in early November, when I spent days with her in my arms, nursing her and looking out at the changing leaves. This is the time of year when we look forward to holidays and start to plan their celebration — a specially joyous activity once we had children. Perhaps because of this, as well as all the planting I normally do in autumn — especially spring bulbs — I associate fall with hopeful new beginnings instead of decline.
Of those rooms, my favorite in which to write is the sunroom, as it is uncluttered and I don’t get distracted by looking around and thinking of the household chores I should be doing instead of writing. It is also close to the rooms where my children do their homework, so we can be companionable in our separate pursuits.
Photo: Pinterest. Not my own windowseat, but very similar!
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’ve changed my header image to reflect the current season, which seems appropriate for a blog focused on gardening and plants! What do you think? This lovely photo is an autumn view from the rose garden at Dumbarton Oaks.