Spiky Squares for March

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Here is my contribution to the March series that Becky, Queen of the Square, is hosting. This month’s theme is Spikey Squares, and this spikey plant is the Marginata or “Red Edge” dracaena.

Dracaena plants add a charming grace note to summer gardens, whether as an accent in a bare spot or in a large pot or urn on your courtyard. But I suggest not overdoing dracaenas! You’ll lose the effect. I still like the concept of a young tender dracaena spraying out from the center of an urn filled with pink geraniums, purple petunias, blue and white trailing lobelia so popular back in the 1980s.

Dracaenas cannot withstand cold winters outside, only in U.S. Department of Agriculture zones 10b and above.

March Squares

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Vita Sackville-West’s Garden

The garden in Autumn

A tired swimmer in the waves of time

I throw my hands up: let the surface close:

Sink down through centuries to another clime,

And buried I find the castle and the rose.

Buried in time and sleep,

So drowsy, overgrown,

That here the moss is green upon the stone,

And lichen stains the keep.

                                                            ~ Vita Sackville-West, “Sissinghurst”

That was just as British poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West and her husband, diplomat Harold Nicolson, found the sprawling 16th-century Sissinghurst estate in 1930 – the ancient castle derelict, the grounds unkempt. Only the Elizabeth Tower was, by a wild stretch of the imagination, inhabitable. Doves and pigeons flew through glassless windows looking out over 450 acres of squalid farmland. Yet it was the pale pink brick tower that first captivated Vita’s interest.

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“One might reasonably have hoped to inherit century-old hedges of yew, some gnarled mulberries, a cedar or two, a pleached allee, flagged walls, a mound. Instead there was nothing but weed, rough grass, a shabby eyesore of a greenhouse in the wrong place, broken fencing, wired chicken runs, squalor and slovenly disorder everywhere.”

All that changed once Vita and Harold and a team of gardeners got to work to transform squalor and disorder into a garden paradise. They inherited little more than a few ancient oaks and filbert trees, a quince, and a single old rose—a dark red, double-flowered form of Rosa gallica, now known as the cultivar “Sissinghurst Castle.”

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Vita planted the R. noisette  “Madame Alfred Carrière” even before the property deed had been signed.

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Today, the five-acre Sissinghurst Castle Garden is the most famous 20th-century garden in England, its rose collection one of the finest in the world, maintained by the National Trust. Its garden rooms exemplify the Arts and Crafts style that Gertrude Jekyll’s philosophy popularized. Existing buildings and walls determined the design of the gardens, based on axial walks leading into a series of garden rooms planted in romantic profusion and exuberance, enclosed within high clipped hedges and pink brick walls.

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The “doors” in the hedges and walls allowed glimpses into the individual “rooms,” just as rooms of a large house would open off the corridors.

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Some 200 varieties of Old Roses formed the centerpiece of Vita’s planting. She particularly liked the old bourbons, damasks, and gallicas.

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Vita welcomed the less familiar purples and lilacs, and she insisted on the striped, flaked, mottled variations recalling Old Dutch paintings. We should approach them “with open and unprejudiced eyes, and also with a nose that esteems the true scent of a rose warmed by the sun,” she wrote.

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She walks among the loveliness she made,

Between the apple-blossom and the water—

She walks among the patterned pied brocade,

Each flower her son and every tree her daughter. ~ Vita Sackville-West, “The Land”

Vita eventually established her study in the Tower room where she wrote 17 novels (including All Passions Spent and The Edwardians), several collections of poetry, biographies, translations, and weekly garden columns for The Observer. Along with close personal friend Virginia Woolf, Vita was connected to the Bloomsbury Group of writers and, in fact, inspired Woolf’s novel Orlando. In 1947, she received the Heinemann Prize for The Garden, and the following year she was named a royal Companion of Honour for her services to literature. In 1955, she was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Veitch Medal.

Harold Nicolsons' book room in the South Cottage

From her study window in the Tower Room, Vita and  invited visitors could look down on the White Garden below, inspired by Hidcote. The White Garden is considered the most influential of all of Sissinghurst’s garden rooms. Using a palette of white, silver, grey, and green, it’s especially romantic in summer moon light.

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Sissinghurst Garden was opened for two days to the paying public—known as “shillingses” because each paid a shilling at the gate—in 1938. “Between them and myself a particular form of courtesy survives, a gardener’s courtesy.” Her husband was less welcoming.

As Vita became increasingly withdrawn from society, she wrote that she would like to live alone in the Tower with her books and her dogs. Eventually she retired there. On 2nd June 1962, Vita died in the first-floor bedroom of the Priest’s House.

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Harold was devastated. He secluded himself at Sissinghurst and died on 1st May 1968 in his bedroom at South Cottage.

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Sissinghurst Castle Garden in the Weald of Kent is open to the public on Fridays through Tuesdays, from mid-March to early November.  Contact sissinghurst@ nationaltrust.org.uk for specific hours.

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sissinghurst

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Rosa Sissinghurst Castle

Old Rose

Beautiful, rich plum-coloured flowers, edged and flecked with light magenta-crimson. Golden stamens. Particularly tough. Lightly scented. 1850.
Available from David Austin Roses @ €20.50 bare root only

Rose characteristics

  • Rose Type Old Rose
  • Sub Type Gallica
  • Colour Light magenta-crimson
  • Fragrance Strength Light
  • Flowering Once Flowering
  • Disease Resistance Average
  • Height 1,25m
  • Width 1m
  • Year of Introduction 1850

Magazine Gardens

By the way, folks, do any of you subscribe to Traditional Home and/or Victoria magazines? The current issue of both are featuring spring gardens. If you don’t subscribe, check out your local newsstand/magazine stand at your favorite grocery chain and pick out these two specifically. They’re well worth a few dollars.

Blessings wherever you are this Sunday afternoon. It’s snowy here. Time for another cuppa tea!

~ Jo

Gertrude Jekyll’s Munstead Wood

Invariably on a day in June, my husband will ask, “How’s old Gertie today?” and I’ll answer, “She in full bloom.” We’re not discussing an old friend but an English shrub rose in our border, named R. Gertrude Jekyll, bred by recently deceased rosarian David Austin. Voted England’s favorite rose, it is a repeat bloomer bearing rich pink rosettes with Old Rose fragrance, 80 petals per rosette on a bush up to five feet tall and three and a half feet wide. And it once was a gold medal winner in the Chelsea Flower Show.

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But that’s not why this particular rose is in my garden. I wanted to honor Gertrude Jekyll herself, one of my favorite garden designers whose English style helped influence my mother’s gardens and, on a much smaller scale, my own back yard. Vita Sackville-West once referred to Gertrude Jekyll as “that grand gardener to whom we owe so much.”

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Miss Jekyll (b. 1843 d. 1932) was a world-renown British horticulturalist, garden designer, craftswoman, photographer, writer, and artist – a sort of Renaissance woman during England’s Arts & Crafts era. She created over 40 gardens in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States; wrote some 15 books and over a thousand articles for garden magazines. She advocated for the simplicity and orderly disorder of English cottage gardens – the “natural garden” later espoused by Virginia and Leonard Woolf at Monks House and followed by Elizabeth Lawrence in North Carolina.

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Jekyll created the cult of free floral form over a substructure of concealed architectural regularity. She allowed natural shape and harmonious coloring to take precedence by using a subtle, symbiotic approach that we know as the proverbial “English style” garden. Much as French Impressionist painter Claude Monet was doing at Giverny, Jekyll translated brush strokes into flowers and shrubbery.  Jekyll approached horticulture from a painter’s perspective and planned her own gardens at Monstead Wood in Surrey as a series of pictures.

“I hold that the best purpose of a garden is to give delight and to give refreshment of mind, to soothe, to refine, and to life up the heart in a spirit of praise and thanksgiving.”

 A gardener, she insisted, should develop an understanding of how the appearance of plants changes with the seasons as well as during their individual life cycles. Plants in the same bed overtake each other as the season changes. Perspective planting, with taller plants toward the back, allows for a multidimensional or “layered” effect that pleases the eye. And in the case of those unavoidable bare spaces that occur as plants expend their life cycles, an urn or pot of flowers in the empty spot becomes a delightful garden accent.

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“Often, when I have had to do with other people’s gardens they have said: ‘I have bought a quantity of shrubs and plants, show me where to place them’; to which I can only answer ‘That is not the way in which I can help you; show me your spaces and I will tell you what plants to get for them’.”

Jekyll espoused innovation through experimentation, testing different plant combinations and keeping detailed plant journals. Each individual plant should be studied for its own culture and growth habit, foliage and color, in order to achieve a beautiful and appropriate effect in the garden. The garden as a whole should be harmonious, yet reveal surprises and unexpected views for a natural appearance; thus the gardener as artist devises “living pictures” with simple, well-known flowers in refined harmony in “dogged determination” as well as patience.

“A woman’s place is in the garden. And a garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all, it teaches entire trust.”

 MUNSTEAD WOOD exemplified “the best simple English country life” of Jekyll’s day, frugal yet rich in beauty and comfort, very much in the tradition of the landed gentry, but much simpler than the popular imagination of the great houses like Downton Abbey. The house itself has been described as “every inch an Edwardian house,” an embodiment of gracious hospitality and living in a “golden afternoon.” To Jekyll, it was an unpretentious house and way of life. She greeted guests with both hands extended in welcome, sat and visited over a tea table, then sent them out to explore the gardens on their own as she grew older. Tea was half past four with “thin slices of bread and butter, some form of cake, perhaps an unusual preserve such as crabapple jelly or quince jam . . . ” (Gertrude Jekyll at Munstead House, Tankard & Wood, 111).

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Let’s follow along with Miss Jekyll on a virtual garden tour she describes in Colour in the Flower Garden. We begin in the original Woodland, a plantation of Scots pine, before it was felled in the 1870s in favor of a self-sown mixed wood. Jekyll began working to develop this woodland almost immediately after acquiring the property in the early 1880s. With no plan at first, she treated each area on its own merits, creating natural groupings. One old Scots pine had been spared the chopping axe because its trunk had forked, thus the tree was retained as a focal point at the end of two broad woodland avenues.

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The Green Wood Walk spread nearly 400 feet long between large bushes of salmon and pink rhododendrons, including Bianchi, one of few truly pink flowered hybrids. In Gardens for Small Country Houses, Jekyll described the grassy avenue as “the most precious passion of the place, the bluish distance giving a sense of some extent and the bounding woodland one of repose and security, while in slightly misty weather the illusions of distance and mystery are endless and full of charm.”

Seasonal Gardens, or garden rooms, are one of the hallmarks of Jekyll’s style, as well as the linking of house and garden, a bit of a challenge as the grounds were developed and cultivated before the house was built. Flowers soften the “boxy” appearance of the architecture. Jekyll was particularly fond of the briar roses, collecting many from area cottage gardens.

The Shrub Border featured a central backbone of magnolias and junipers; for example, a 12-foot M. stellate shared space with a Forsythia suspense, only 10 feet tall. A Spiraea prunifolia extended the season with its brilliant crimson leaves. And so on. Any spare space was planted with pentstemons and snapdragons.

 Her most widely admired creation at Monstead Wood was The Main Hardy Flower Border (c. early 1890s) that ran 200 feet long and 14 feet deep, backed by an 11-foot stone wall. Plant material and plant combinations and design was her emphasis here. The border featured a complex, intricate color scheme based on harmonious plant relationships. The trick was to leave no empty “holes” when flowering is done by building the borders in layers of drifts that interlock and overlap each other – Meadowsweet, Foxgloves, Canterbury Bells, Iberis sempervirens, Yuccas gloriosa and recurve, Clematis montana together with Guelder Rose, single petunias, tall Ageratum, Phlox, Nasturtiums, Hollyhocks —  many of which my mother cultivated in her Southern garden borders.

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Thus, the flower garden becomes a changing tapestry of color and form with subtle changes to maintain interest from July to early September (late May to sometimes late September in the Southern garden). In addition, Jekyll kept a small reserve garden as an embryonic nursery for experimentation, trying out ideas and theories before placement in the main garden beds.

And there is more! A half-acre Orchard planted in eight varieties of cooking apples included “Egremont Russett” and “King of the Pippins,” pears – the old French variety “Catillac” and “Doyenne du Comice” – plums and figs, beds of strawberries reserved for the table, as well as raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, currants – all trained as espaliers – and a working kitchen garden and nursery with potting shed, all within fewer than two acres! The potting shed was an engineer’s shop with a forge where Jekyll made small specialized tools of her own design.

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A PROFESSIONAL GARDEN DESIGNER

Most of us think of Gertrude Jekyll in her role as a professional garden designer who changed the face of English landscape following previous influences of Capability Brown. Cottage garden inspired Jekyll’s work in her 50+year career, mostly in southeast England. She worked best with an architect providing the basic layout, especially the equally renowned Sir Edwin Lutyens, a genius in space manipulation and deep geometric understanding. Luytens’ rigid frameworks were ideally suited to Jekyll’s concept of billowing borders softening sharp edges and angles, of neat lawns and masses of climbing roses, clumps of lavender and santolina, jasmine spilling out onto paths.

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Her nursery business paid wages for a head gardener and four under-gardeners. Beginning in 1890, Jekyll’s catalogue listed 300+ plants, mostly shrubbery and herbaceous plants but also included 20 herbs and sixty alpines. The main purpose of her business was to provide plants for garden design clients.

Her nephew, Francis Jekyll, continued to run the nursery business after she died in 1932, but only until 1941 when labor became too scarce because of WWII. In 1948, Munstead Wood was broken up and sold after a unique selection of herbaceous plants and shrubbery had been dispersed among other nurseries.

Today, the essential ambiance of Gertrude Jekyll’s work endures in the way we design our own backyard gardens, consider plant form to soften hard lines of modern houses, and use color to harmonize the various seasonal elements.

SELECTED TITLES BY GERTRUDE JEKYLL

Many of Gertrude Jekyll’s books included her own photographs, first in black-and-white, later in an early form of color chrome. Wood and Garden took the gardening world “by storm” when it was published in 1899. Her forthright prose pinpointed both the attributes and evils in gardening, emphasizing diligence and determination. Admittedly my favorite of her books, Wood and Garden reads rather like Elizabeth Lawrence’s A Southern Garden. By the mid-1920s, Jekyll wrote magazine articles almost exclusively for Gardening Illustrated. Her final article appeared 12 days before she died in 1932.

 

Children and Gardens (1908)

Colour in the Flower Garden (1908)

Gardens for Small Country Houses (1914)

Roses for English Gardens (1901)

Wood and Garden: Notes and Thoughts, Practical and Critical, of a Working Amateur (1899)

 

FURTHER READING:

Gertrude Jekyll at Munstead Wood, Judith Tankard & Martin Wood, 1996 and 2015

Official Website: www.gertrudejekyll.co.uk/

http://munsteadwood.org.uk/

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ROSES IN THE RAIN: announcing a new Word Press blog launch

Are you still trying to measure up to unrealistic expectations your mother imposed on you as a child? Are you still trying to seek her approval long after you’ve “grown and gone” from home? Or have you, finally, learned to forgive her and move on with your own wonderful life that God intended for you?

Today, I am launching a new WordPress.com blog, titled ROSES IN THE RAIN: A Daughter’s Story. More than ten years in the making, this portrait of my mother and our particular mother-daughter relationship was my attempt to liberate the past out of its shadows. I tried to hide in those shadows, but both my sister who lived the story and my daughter who listened to it urged me to write it all out. That process became painful psychological therapy, yes, but it also led me to a long-delayed forgiveness, then patience, peace, and love.

This book-length blog in weekly posts will appear every Tuesday at http://www.rosesintherainmemoir.wordpress.com, beginning today with “Prelude: The Dream.” If you encounter any glitches, let me know at pineoakes@gmail.com and together we’ll try to figure them out.

 

Can you recreate a Versailles on a quarter acre?

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Virginia and Leonard did at Monk’s House in Rodmell, near Lewes in Sussex, England. They found the weather-boarded cottage in need of much repair on an afternoon walk while enjoying Christmas 1910. She already was in love with the idea of a country life, away from a busy literary and political life with Leonard and the Bloomsbury Group in London. At the time, the Woolfs were renting Asheham, a “romantic, gentle, melancholy, lovely” country house in East Sussex. The cottage caught her eye, but Leonard fell madly in love the scraggly garden behind the gate.

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Nine years later, the place was put up for auction and Virginia and Leonard Woolf bought it. Now Monk’s House became their country retreat where Virginia wrote most of her major novels, drawing inspiration from the various garden rooms.

In time, Monk’s House – “with niches for the holy water, and a great fireplace” – became a literary shrine to the Woolfs: she, the writer; he, the publisher of Hogarth Press. But “the point of it is the garden. I shan’t tell you, though, for you must come and sit there on the lawn with me, or stroll in the apple orchard, or pick – there are cherries, plums, pears, figs, together with all the vegetables. . .”

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Very few diary entries fail to mention the gardens, the “child” in their marriage. Leonard was the gardener, Virginia an accomplice and assistant with “chocolate earth in our nails,” she wrote. “We have been planting tiny grains of seed in the front bed, in the pious or religious belief that they will resurrect next spring as Clarkia, Calceolaria, Campanula, Larkspur and Scabious.”

“Our garden is a perfect variegated chintz: asters, plumasters, zinnias, geums, nasturtiums and so on: all bright, [as though] cut from colored papers, stiff, upstanding as flowers should be.” Her friend Vita Sackville-West commented to Virginia that “you cannot recreate Versailles on a quarter-acre of Sussex. It just cannot be done.” Well, Virginia and Leonard did anyway but one far less self-conscious of itself.

Brick pathways outlined a flower walk, a terrace of millstones, a fishpond garden and an Italian garden, a walled garden – all carved out of a three-quarter acre behind the cottage. Beyond was an orchard with mowned paths and bee hives nestled in the grass. The steeple of St. Peter’s, a 12th-century church, lent sacred dignity to the neighborhood beyond the flint garden wall. Virginia turned an old tool shed, permeated with the scent of apples stored in the loft, into her writing room — a personal Room of One’s Own.

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Later it was moved to the bottom of the garden, under a chestnut tree, and a little brick patio laid a step down from the French windows. From here visitors were invited to watch competitive games of bowls on the lawn – and the Woolfs were fierce players!

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In her diary, she wrote about “fruit-bearing trees, the plums crowded so as to weigh the tip of the branch[es] down; unexpected flowers sprouted among cabbages. There were well-kept rows of peas, artichokes, potatoes; raspberry bushes had pale little pyramids of fruit; & I could fancy a very pleasant walk in the orchard under the apple trees, with the grey extinguisher of the church steeple pointing my boundary …” (The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 3 July 1919, I, pp. 286-7).

mh orchard

beehive

To say, then, that the garden became a fictional device for Virginia is an understatement. In one of her short stories, a mysterious spot on the drawing wall turns out to be a tiny garden snail. Another snail in another story tries to figure out to navigate a dried leaf without getting stepped on by unsuspecting walkers. The primary metaphor in Mrs. Dalloway is a pear tree outside the window. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia quotes part of “A Garden Song” by Charles Isaac Elton:

“Come out and climb the garden path, Luriana Lurilee,
The China-rose is all abloom and buzzing with the summer bee” (110).

Walking up the downs, nosing along, making up phrases, then coming home to write in a seamless steam-of-consciousness process to create a rhythm of walking incorporated into her sentences, phrase by phrase passages rather like a long prose poem – there, I’ve slipped under her spell, into her style, quite unthinking!

Peace and tranquility of the garden soothed Virginia’s mind during periods of illness and depression. Even when unwell, she would work in her bedroom, breathing lavender and the climbing Rosa Princess Marie outside her window. She’d lay a wood board across the arms of her wood chair, with an inkwell glued onto it. In a letter, she wrote, “I sleep and dress [and work] in full view of the garden, the sun catching apples winking in the trees  . . .”

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Gardens surface over and over as essential backdrop to Virginia’s stories. They become metaphors on the page. In To the Lighthouse, for example, she mentions big clumps of red-hot pokers (kniphofia) popular in the early 20th century; of Mrs. Ramsey wondering whether to send bulbs for planting when she returns home and whether the gardener would remember to plant them. A long-neglected garden stands as metaphor for a family in disarray, dysfunctional, after Mrs. Ramsey’s untimely death, to make a narrative point. “Poppies sowed themselves among the dahlias; the lawn waved with long grass; giant artichokes towered among roses; a fringed carnation flowered among the cabbages . . .” (137).

In her essay, “A Sketch of the Past,” from Moments of Being, Virginia wrote that “the gardens gave off a murmur of bees; the apples were red and gold; there were also pink flowers; and grey and silver leaves . . . to hum round one such a complete rapture of pleasure . . .” as she recalled her earliest memories of Talland House at St. Ives in Cornwall, “in that great Cathedral space which was childhood . . .” (81). She described “ferns with clusters of seeds on their backs, . . . the click of the garden gate, the ants swarming on the hot door step, . . . old Mr. Wolstenholme in his beehive chair; the spotted elm leaves on the lawn; the escallonia leaves showing their grey undersides . . .” at St. Ives (135).

In To the Lighthouse, Talland House and St. Ives become Skye in the Hebrides on the northwest coast of Scotland. Here a grey-green somnolence embraces one on a sultry afternoon, as I would expect in Cornwall, not Scotland. “The house starred in its greenery with purple passion flowers . . . so they strolled down the garden . . . past the tennis lawn, past the pampas grass, to that break in the thick hedge . . .” (19-20). “He looked into the hedge, into the intricacy of the twigs” (35). Mrs. Ramsey described young children as “fresh as roses on a summer morning” and “the whitening of the flowers and something grey in the leaves [as conspiring] together to rouse in her a feeling of anxiety . . .” (61). “[I]t was windy, so that the leaves now and then brushed open a star, and the stars themselves seemed to be shaking and darting light and trying to flash out between the edges of the leaves” (113).

Virginia manipulated and reinvented gardens at Talland House and Monk’s House to bend her purpose of a particular narrative. Never mind that today we may or may not recognize some of the plants she named, such as the geums (genus of about 50 species of rhizomatous perennial herbaceous plants in the rose family) or the kniphofia (red-hot pokers or Torch Lily, native to Madagascar and South Africa, “like brasiers of clear burning coal”), although I have spied a bed of the latter in a local garden as I drove past. Urns of trailing geraniums we do know and love, along with the Clematis “Jackmanii” which she referred to as “jacmanna,” perhaps a local nickname. Even when we fail to perceive the intended metaphor, we still enjoy the ambiance she created in her scenic settings.

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On the 24th March 1941, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “L. is doing the rhododendrons.” Four days later, she strolled out of the garden, through the gate at the end, and down to the bank of the river Ouse, loaded the pockets of her long cardigan with rocks, and waded into the river – and drowned herself. Leonard continued living at Monk’s House until the late 1960s, tending the gardens and orchard to assuage his grief, experimenting with plants in the greenhouse, writing, entertaining the occasional visitor.

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Almost as though anticipating her own future demise, Virginia begins to conclude the narrative of To the Lighthouse as memories a decade after the Ramseys abandoned their summer house on Skye. Some of the phrases we recognize from her diaries and essays.
“There was the old grey cloak she wore gardening . . . as she came up the drive, . . . stooping over her flowers (the garden was a pitiful sight now, all run to riot, and rabbits scuttling at you out of the beds) – A thistle thrust itself between the tiles in the larder. The swallows nestled in the drawing room; the floor was strewn with straw . . . Tortoise-shell butterflies burst from the chrysalis and pattered their life out on the window-pane. Poppies sowed themselves among the dahlias; the lawn waved with long grass; giant artichokes towered among roses; a fringed carnation flowered among the cabbages; while the gentle tapping of a weed at the window had become, on winters’ nights, a drumming from sturdy trees and thorned briars which made the whole room green in summer” (136-138).

Leonard Woolf founded Rodmell Horticultural Society. On 13 November 1940 it became formally “Rodmell Horticultural and Allotment Society.” The first Rodmell Flower and Vegetable Show was held on Saturday 24 August 1946.

Today Monk’s House is owned by the National Trust. It is open for public tours from April to October. Below is a hand-embroidered landscape design of Monk’s House Gardens by Caroline Zoob:


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NEXT WEEK: What Is Gertrude Jekyll Garden Design?

 

Garden for show or for plant study?

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Neat borders, or flowers spilling over onto paths? A show garden, or a laboratory for plant material? Elizabeth Lawrence designed a little of both in her gardens of Raleigh and, later, Charlotte, North Carolina. Her garden requirements included a gate, a sundial, statuary, reflecting pool, all viewed from the windows. She espoused a Jekyll-type Southern garden wherein the individual plant material takes precedence over tightly structured design — a living laboratory of plants for study. 

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She kept scientific records of dates, species, length of bloom for annuals, bulbs, perennials and biennials, as well as shrubs and vines. After all, she had been self-educated and trained as a botanist and horticulturalist, supplementing her degree in formal landscape design and architecture from North Carolina State University.

Lawrence discovered early on that “a knowledge of plant material for the South could not be got in the library, most of the literature of horticulture being for a different climate [from that of Piedmont North Carolina, for example], and that I would have to grow the plants in my garden and learn about them myself” (from Forward, A Southern Garden, xi). I think Thomas Jefferson would have been right proud of her!

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Elizabeth Lawrence leads my list of favorite literary gardeners whose books, A Southern Garden and Through the Garden Gate, have inspired me for decades. She was a gifted writer with a classical education, botanical accuracy, and a keen appreciation of color and texture of plant material. Her books belong on the shelf of gardening literature alongside Jekyll, Sackville-West, Woolf, as well as botany, history, and — yes! — even poetry. From her I was first inspired to keep my own garden journal, since the 1980s. Even now, her work is inspiration for my garden blogging ventures.

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The four chapters in A Southern Garden (c. 1942, 3rd ed. 1991) follow the four seasons, oddly beginning with Winter, a good time for me to re-read yet again. Winter in her garden, she writes of the Middle South, takes up December and January with a breath of spring in good years. Winter even in the Deep South can vary from unusually mild — when pansies, sweet alyssum, early violets — to bitter cold, the ground frozen, the air dry, almost  unbreathable. Winter is the time for a mixture of evergreen and deciduous trees. Crepe myrtles’ smooth bark mottled with a warm grey and tan contrast with a magnolia’s shiny green leaves or a dark stand of pines.

The first flowers of winter are the little bulbs such as the paper-white narcissus, Narcissus Tazetta, she writes in The Little Bulbs (Criterion Books, New York, 1957), in which she describes a number of these little bulbs and when to plant them. Then a long, drawn-out spring sweetens the air:

As long as my grandmother lived,

The sweet white violets that grew

On either side of the garden path

Bloomed every spring, and when in bloom

Made sweet the garden and the lane,

And scented all the avenue;

While in house, from room to room,

Their fragrance travelled with the breeze.

They thrived until she died, and then

Survived her death another spring.

And after that nobody knew

The words she said to make them bloom,

When walking up and down the path

She poked among them with her cane. (A Southern Garden, 34)

Elizabeth writes of digging up masses of yellow bulbs to offer to neighbors new enough to gardening that they were willing to take anything. She’d go from garden to garden to see whether anyone was discarding anything pink. Later, in her weekly newspaper column in the Charlotte Observer, she’d write about who swapped what.

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She describes the magnolias and Van Houtte’s spirea, and speaks of the crab apple as “the flowering tree that looked as if a mauve veil had been spread over it” (ibid., 46). Surprisingly, she expends very little time with azaleas, that epitome of Southern springs, but she does devote a section on irises and daylilies of the Middle South, followed by a section on Old Roses. The Summer section is a compendium of plant material, all with Latin names, followed by the Fall section.

Life inside one’s house should flow outside into the garden, she advises. Thus my library doors open onto the courtyard with views of the herb garden and English borders beyond. Late afternoon tea in the summer garden when “the sun would be over the yard arm” is one of life’s enduring pleasures. 

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Even as a child, all Elizabeth Lawrence needed to be content were a  house with a garden and a library, a church, and a neighborhood of friends with gardens. Thus, she remained until her strength finally gave out on St. Barnabas Day — 11 June 1985.

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~ Photo courtesy of Dannye Powell

“The world of gardening is a world as old as the history is man, and as new as the latest contribution of science: a world of mystery, adventure, and romance; a world of poetry and philosophy; a world of beauty; and a world of work. Never be deceived about the work . . .” (from Forward, A Southern Garden, xxi).

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FURTHER READING: No One Gardens Alone: A Life of Elizabeth Lawrence, Emily Herring Wilson, 2004

NEXT WEEK: Virginia Woolf’s Gardens at Monks House