Twentieth Century Writing in a Twenty First Century Way
September is the time when the trees start to take center stage for the big show in October, but it’s heavenly because the garden is making it’s last burst and no matter where you look something beautiful is going on.
The blue heron is used to the whirr and click of my camera now but still flies away if I get too close (above). Right now it seems odd to post what is just outside the window but winter will be here all too soon and then I will be glad to have these to scroll through when it’s all buried under the snow.
But it’s the juxtaposition of leaves and changing blooms that seems to squeeze the entire growing season into one photo. Below are three versions of the same shot, each focused differently: first the phlox, then the hydrangea and then the changing ivy.
We are at that point where it is too late to put in anything new (no new bulbs going in this year, I think) and not time to cut things down or rake, so we’ll just sit back and watch the show – I already posted some of the spectacular colors of October.
The last garden post overlooked some moments and photos so I’m backtracking a bit. I planted these Forget Me Nots years ago and they’ve always done okay but this year one of the plants in a part-sun location bloomed as never before, and I managed to capture the true blue, which is often elusive with a digital camera. Also having a good year is the only peony bush I planted myself. It’s taken a few years but now it blooms almost as much as the plants that were here when we moved in. I thought that the flowers would be orangey red but they turned out magenta, which is fine with me. It is an exact match with the magenta in the Crayola Crayon box, which my best friend and I fought over as if it was the most important thing in the world. It must have been second or third grade, and when I think of us sitting in their breakfast room off the kitchen it seems almost quaint to think of us, coloring and arguing so earnestly. My own girl hoarded the red crayons as a toddler, flatly refusing to share, a fierce scowl on her face. We clearly have a gene that predisposes us to jealously guard art supplies. I still love to color with crayons.
And the astilbe – it’s a monster that gets bigger every year and I love it. There were several in the garden when we arrived, but the rest of them are tepid at best while this one now dominates and has practically swallowed up the dephiniums next to it. I didn’t really appreciate the delicate beauty of this plant until I visited Edith Wharton’s estate in Lenox, MA, last year, The Mount. There’s a lovely labyrinth below the house that is completely made up of white astilbe and we happened to visit when it was in full bloom. Spectacular.
Not everything is growing like gangbusters. The hydrangea has been giving us fits, because it is bigger than ever but not blooming like everyone else’s. After much consulting and cajoling and applying copious amounts of water, fertilizer and coffee grounds, it finally squeaked out some blossoms. I did so many things I have no idea which, if any, of them, did the trick. The blooms are beautiful at every stage and they last for so long, changing slowly from green to white to blue.
Astilbe and hydrangeas are part of our present – plants I’ve only come to appreciate recently – while the peonies and lilacs and always pull me into the past. The rhododendrons span across the decades, reminding me of the enormous ones in the gardens at MIT and the even bigger ones that bloom for graduation on the perimeter of Killian Court. It’s quite a sight.
When last we checked, the azalea was on its way out and the rhododendrons, peonies and irises were on their way in. With a dizzying combination of cool days, sunshine and torrential rain, it has been a changeable, wonderful spring for flowers.
The butterflies made the most of the last of the azalea blossoms. For once I pruned it right on time, as soon as the last flower wilted. I hope that the trimming will save it from the ice damage the extremities seem to suffer each winter.
Down the hill the white rhododendron bloomed almost overnight, its blossoms delicate and quick to wilt in the stormy weather, like a lady’s summer linen dress. When I look at the June sun through white blossoms it seems so right that it’s the season of weddings, graduations and first communions. Our charter school established a lovely tradition of families bringing in flowers and branches from their gardens to decorate the school indoors and out for its high school graduation. Buckets of water await at morning dropoff and people unload a dazzling array of plants and cuttings. Parent volunteers spend the whole morning making arrangements large and small for the podium and receptions tables. Every year is different, but we agreed that this year the weather provided a flower bonanza.
The pink rhododendrons are a bit of a mystery – one towers over the rock garden, loaded with blossoms and buzzing with bumblebees, the others in the deeper shade offer only a blossom or two, if any at all. We will fertilize in the fall and see what happens.
The scent of the white and whisper pale pink peonies outside the front door brings a rush of memories of springs past, when our mother sent us outside to clip flowers for the dinner table. The only thing missing is a purple lilac bush; we have a white one down the drive that is barely hanging on because the towering pines block the sun it needs. We just don’t have enough sun near the house to sustain a lilac, but that shade is what keeps the rest of the garden green in the dog days of summer.
I wait all winter for the deep blue of my favorite irises – they shift from blue to purple in the changing light all day long. I visit them each time on my way to and from the car, taking time to prune and check the progress of the later peonies to the left that will bloom just as they wane. The larger varieties of irises are less vibrant and droop so quickly (they need to be staked), but they also pop out when the garden is viewed from a distance. This looks like it is the first year there are so many irises we will need to split them. That didn’t stop me, however, from buying more at the garden club sale – these teeny ones are just right at the front border, and they bloomed right after I put them in. In the few weeks since they bloomed the leaves have filled in nicely, leaving me hopeful for a beautiful border next spring.
Next up: lilies, astilbe, delphiniums, cone flowers, coreopsis and some maddening hydrangeas.
I jinxed it and solved part of the mystery all at once. The deer are eating my hostas, or what’s left of them. I’m pretty sure I wrote a post with this title a few years back when they ate my tulip buds (I actually heard them chewing one spring night). Now I put out dishes with bars of Irish Spring soap to ward them off until the flowers bloom and they aren’t tasty any more. Now that the tulips are finished I guess I will need to move the soap. Deer are picky, though, and have left my favorite variegated varieties alone. Those hostas are particularly beautiful early in the season when the Japanese maple seeds sprinkle over them like tiny hearts.
We are in the midst of a year of milestones, most of which I would like to ignore. One welcome distraction is chronicling the progress of the garden. I am not an expert gardener (but am lucky to have friends that are) but found a few years back that once I planted a perennial that actually bloomed for a second season, I was hooked. What I love even more than the plants, sun and earth is the few minutes spent each morning with my husband as we look to see what has changed over the past day – new blooms, spots that need something more, what will bloom next.
As I sift through the photos of the last six weeks, I cannot help but think about the days on which I took them and the times during which I planted some things.
We were greeted by brash red tulips when we return from a trip over April vacation. It was a trip that alternated between doing fun things, seeing old friends, eating great food and being glued to screens as we watched in morbid fascination the events after the Boston Marathon Bombings. Looking at the red tulips at home, I remembered that it was after September 11, 2001, that I began gardening in earnest. It was a hot, dry, fall that year, as if the clouds had been chased away by the smoke from New York. I realized that I had spent those first years in our home inside with babies and toddlers and that now they were old enough that I could spent a few of our outdoor minutes – very few – away from the swing set and sandbox. As I planted bulbs that October – hoping against hope that the right end of them was pointing up – a neighbor strolled up and asked what I was doing. My answer surprised even me. I told him that everything I had done to make that house a home was on the inside. After renting for so many years, I felt I had been holding back on the idea of putting down roots in this place. But September 11 had told me to embrace the life we have and the place we have chosen, however temporary. Planting bulbs was a way of taking ownership of this life and my role in it. The bulbs I planted that day? Red tulips.
Tulips are daring. They poke through when nothing else is willing to go first, and sometimes they betray us and don’t come back. All of the tulips planted by the previous owner are gone now, and the numbers of my own tulips (except the red ones) are already dwindling.
These pink ones go through phases when they bloom – they start out kind of hairy and menacing, the colors pale and cool like the light, and then suddenly they warm up and open joyously. Early spring is such an interesting combination of cold and barely warm, as if nature hasn’t quite adjusted the controls on the colors yet.
Crazy forsythia yellow and tulip red are set against barely discernible pink and blue hyacinths. These tulips, which take a long time to open, seem to follow the progress of color with the seasonal light, drawing the warm pigments up from the soil. I think of this image every year when we wake up one gray November morning to find that the bright autumn colors have been completely drained from the landscape. It’s like all of the pigments get sucked down into the earth until spring, when the color faucets slowly creak open and the colors bubble back up to the surface. It’s a story that might make a good picture book someday.
The creeping phlox (first lavender, then pink) and candy tuft are next, and I am glad to see they are making their way around the garden lamps and the tulips because I much prefer them to mulch as a backdrop. My goal is for the perennials and ground covers to fill in so completely that someday we will only need to mulch around the maple. Now that I think about that, it might spell an earlier demise for the tulips. I will have to look it up.
The peonies, astilbe, day lilies and irises start to fill in while the lazy hostas decide whether they are going to disappoint me again. Everyone in the world can grow so many hostas they have to dig the extras up and give them away, but not me. The hostas that do bother to return unfurl a leaf or two and then run out of steam. They are in league with the Pachysandra, I think, which continues to make pathetic showing. But this year the hostas look better than usual, and if they come through then I will post a photo. I won’t jinx it yet.
A good thing about daffodils, my friend T. pointed out, is that the leaves stay beautifully green long after the blooms are gone. No so for tulips, and one reason they don’t last is that we probably trim the droopy yellow leaves earlier than we should.
Then the Japanese maple shows its leaves and we know spring is truly here to stay. The garden sits where once there were two more trees lining the stone walk – a flowering pear and a paper birch. But even as they provided welcome shade in the summer, there wasn’t enough water or earth in this former gravel pit to sustain all three trees so we cut the other two down in favor of the maple, and it has thrived ever since, becoming a beloved tree that would make Joyce Kilmer proud. During winter storms we go out to shake any heavy snow or ice off its branches, sometimes in the middle of the night, we are so worried about losing it.
As the phlox peak and the tulips and daffodils fade, the azalea lights up such a bright orangey red that I think of it as a burning bush. Springtime seems to often bring big moments (births, deaths, graduations) and I have many memories of sitting by the window, looking at the bush and trying to cull some kind of wisdom from the flowers. Now and then, a hummingbird pays a lighting quick visit, and that is always a good day.
There is something to be said for a cold, snowy January. We are so accustomed to unusual weather that typical weather has become its own event. Holiday winter storms and iced-over ponds restore winter to what we expect it to be, and in these times a plummeting thermometer is truly a breath of fresh air. The garden lies protected under a blanket of snow, paw and hoof prints dot trails across the dormant lawn, and fires burn in the wood stove because they are pleasant, not because the power is out. I always look forward to a January hibernation so that I can regroup from the old year and get ready for the new one. This year, the weather is perfect for that.
I was going through some 2011 photos and found this. The Casey Junior Train is the best thing in Disneyland (there isn’t one at Disney World). It epitomizes everything I wanted to visit at Disney theme parks when I was young, and it is pretty much all that is left of the Disney magic that I can embrace. I didn’t really want to go to Disneyland (crowds, lines, heat) but my son was hell bent on seeing this train, and he was right – it’s the coolest thing there. I’m amazed that the Disney merchandising juggernaut has not capitalized on the train mania – aside from a pin, you cannot find any models or memorabilia related to this train anywhere in Disneyland. I’m not complaining (okay maybe I am) but it’s so discouraging when you can buy princess everything and Goofy sweatshirts in size XXXL but not a toy train.
The Casey Junior song from Dumbo is my all time favorite sequence in Disney film – every hue and detail perfect. (The colors in the VHS format are actually richer than the DVD, I think.)
And you know what else I love about it? See the patchwork quilt that makes up the landscape? Those are all succulents, planted by Walt Disney himself, in every hue imaginable. Oh, and my boys rode around in the monkey cage. I loved that, too.
The Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York, is a rare find, a time capsule preserved and put on display for we, the generations that followed. What’s more, it is just down the road from Springwood, the Roosevelt home that is birthplace and burial site of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt himself was instrumental in keeping both homes intact and open to the public, donating his own home to the National Park Service upon his death and persuading the Vanderbilt heirs to do the same when it was clear that no one would buy the estate and its Italian Gardens even at a tiny fraction of its value. It was the foreclosed McMansion of its day, even though it was by far the smallest of the Gilded Age mansions built by the many grandchildren of shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, it didn’t even last through its own generation before it became impractical to live in or care for in the economic devastation of the Great Depression.
Two seasons of the above and below stairs drama of Downton Abbey (and a knowledgeable young guide) helped to bring this gently faded and stuffy house to life for us as we walked through. The windows are closed and shaded to preserve the furnishings and keep it cool, but he reminded us that the home was intended as a summer cottage and in its day the windows would have been thrown open to the sumer breeze off the river and every room filled with flowers from the row of greenhouses just across the lawn.
And while its contents are largely intact, the gardens are only now being revived. Having only come recently to gardening I understand now that it is always the garden that is the first to go when a property loses a caring, resident owner. Architecture may take time to show wear, but it only takes a single season to destroy a garden – and in a year like 2012, punctuated by drought and torrential rain, even tended gardens can be decimated. The Park Service had an interest in preserving Sara Delano’s rose garden – FDR’s and Eleanor’s burial sites are situated next to it – but the Vanderbilt’s more elaborate tiered Italian garden with it vast greenhouses did not merit thefunds for preesrvation – the current restoration is funded by private donations, and the volunteers were hard at work when we visited. I didn’t expect it to be so romantic, with heart-shaped beds of pink petunias and so many of the trees flowers I recognize from my own garden, but then I remembered that even then they had to cultivate plants that could survive in New York rather than the warmer climes of southern Italy.
I don’t know if it is a sign of the times or my own skewed sense of history that fuels my current fascination with the early Twentieth Century. Sometimes there are too many parallels, sometimes too few. From my admittedly untrained perspective, Hyde Park reflects the convergence of the styles that dominated the previous and coming centuries. The old money, sober Dutch influenced but early American style of the Roosevelts at Springwood (their walls adorned with family portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart) looked down its nose at the Gilded Age, with the decadent, new-money European obsessed opulence of the Vanderbilts (their walls covered with tapestries of the Medici family crest) and finally followed by the more eclectic, earthy arts and crafts style adopted by Eleanor Roosevelt at Val-Kill (very little fine art on the walls, decorated almost exclusively with photographs of people and events of their own time).
The house at Val-Kill itself is a harbinger of trends to come, a factory building converted into a home, and it’s dropped ceilings, galley kitchen and folding chairs are testament to the fact that not all progress is forward. Part of all of these styles endure, their longevity or re-emergence dictated by the changes in the American way of life. Just like the start of the last century, war and excess are steering us back to the small-is-beautiful after many years of bigger-is-better. Contraction and preservation in the face of uncertainty is not such a bad thing, if such appreciation brings wisdom and, with it, hope.