Tag Archives: gardening

What to do with my Woad?

I tended to my garden intensively for the first time this spring yesterday: late, I know, but the end of the academic year is just too busy for me to engage in anything beyond department business. I did a bit of raking and snipping earlier on, but yesterday was the very first day that I really got my hands dirty:  very satisfying. The weather has been absolutely beautiful here; if anything, it’s a bit dry, but I feel terrible complaining when other parts of the country are experiencing either drastic drought or flooding! There are definitely some losses out there: lots of veronica, bee balm, St. John’s Wort, avens. I have two less lady’s slippers than last year and only one jack-in-the-pulpit, but I’m happy that these extra-special plants appeared at all. The side border that runs along Hamilton Hall is absolute perfection if I do say so myself: I am totally in love with the front line of lady’s mantle and sweet cicely. Another plant that looks particularly good this year is epimedium or barrenwort–sometimes also called bishop’s hat. What a great plant: dry shade, little maintenance, neat and tidy! As you can tell from this rambling list of plants, I tend to go for old-fashioned plants and herbs in particular: my garden preferences, like so much of my life, are based on history and curiosity more than anything else. I like to mix old herbs and modern perennials together, and the contrasting combinations are often a bit…….odd. But such is the result when you choose a plant for its heritage rather than its appearance. I’ve got a conundrum now as I brought some woad back my favorite herb farm (The Herb Farmacy, Salisbury, Massachusetts). For the sake of heritage, I had to have this ancient dyeing plant, but does it really belong in my small urban garden? It’s not particularly attractive, a biennial to boot, and blue is my least favorite color.

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The obligatory May lady’s slippers picture; epimedium, espaliered yew, sweet cicely, unplanted woad. Below, John White’s “ancient” woad-stained Pict warriors, from Thomas Harriot’s briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588) and the British Museum. Despite the claims of Julius Caesar and Pliny, there’s a lot of doubt among historians as to whether or not the ancient inhabitants of Britain really stained themselves blue with woad in preparation for battle: just ONE reason why every medievalist I know detests Braveheart!

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Fall Colors

Another picture post today–I promise to get something more substantive (and literary) together by the end of the week. Fall is flying by in a flash of color, so I stopped for a few minutes to capture some. One of the (few) negatives things about being a professor is that this is an incredibly busy time of year; one of the (many) negative things about being a department chair is that this is an insanely busy time of the year–so there’s not much time for anything else. My job, combined with my disdain for Salem’s transformation into Witch City in October, generally translates into a month spent inside, which is a shame, because it’s usually so beautiful outside. But I have ventured out to a few tranquil places (including my garden) to catch some color before it all fades to drab.

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Endicott Park in Danvers and my own Salem garden, where the feverfew is still in bloom and Moneypenny blends in with the fall colors.

Peak Season

My garden is a bit of a wild tangle right now, as usual, but I love it; I’ve finally got the layers that I have been seeking for some time, along with the right mix of leaves and flowers and textures. And the mix of colors is good–I have gradually weeded out annoying colors like red (I actually love red indoors but passionately dislike it out-of-doors, even to the extent of red roses. Not sure why).  It’s pretty much at peak; I knew I was going to be in class all week so I took some pictures this past weekend when the weather was absolutely beautiful: sunny and not too humid or hot. Now it’s muggy and rainy, and all the flowers are water-logged and a bit past their prime. The roses look very spotty so I’m not showing them here. Next week will be vicious deadheading week; I always leave the Lady’s Mantle flowers too long because I love them so much, so it’s going to be a big job to cut them back. Yes there are red berries on the thriving baneberry but that is my exception–it’s a great plant and you really don’t want berries to be any other color (its flowers are white). I absolutely love, love, love the fuschia flower of the bee balm in the last picture–wish I could remember its varietal name!

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Worts and All

When I first planted my garden, I was studying horticultural texts from the late medieval and early modern eras, and determined to have the same plants that I was reading about in my own backyard. In particular, I sought out plants that ended with the suffix wort, Old English and German for “plant” or “root”, believing that these ancient plants would connect me to the past–no matter what they looked like! And so, for the past decade or so, I’ve had some rather straggly plants in my garden just because of their heritage–or supposed heritage. Actually some “wort plants” are quite commonly used in modern gardens: varieties of stachys (woundwort), epimedium (barrenwort–containing an aphrodisiac essence), St. John’s Wort, pulmonaria (lungwort), the indestructible groundcover herniaria glabra (rupturewort, sometime called “burstwort”), saponaria (soapwort), astrantia major (masterwort). According to the Doctrine of Signatures and their appearance, the vernacular names of these plants reflect their uses. I have all of these plants in my garden still:  they survived our tough winter. However, it seems that some of my lesser-know wort plants did not: I seem to have lost my motherwort (leonurus cardiaca, of which Nicholas Culpepper commented in 1653, there is no better herb to take melancholy vapours from the heart … and make a merry, cheerful, blithe soul for mothers and everyone else), the variety of campanula that is called “throatwort” is gone, as are many of my ferns, including a maidenhair variety referred to as “spleenwort” in the medieval herbals. Actually the motherwort was much too big for my garden, so I don’t think I’m going to miss it, or the very common mugwort (artemesia) which seems to be gone as well.  I ripped out my spiderwort (tradescantia) long ago because it was so ungainly, and I’m not convinced it was even that old: from the 17th century on, the word wort seems to be rather liberally applied to plants of all kind, even those from the New World.

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Bloodwort and Hazelwort from Leonhard Fuchs’ New Herbal of 1543 (all plates available here; a great resource!); my surviving soapwort, lungwort, and barrrenwort.

Yellow Roses

The combination of last week’s very hot weather followed by serious rain meant that this weekend the roses started popping out, about a week or so earlier than usual. In the past I have been a negligent rosarian (t is a word) but this summer I’m determined to do better: as you can see below, some of my roses are being attacked by some little pest, whether it’s an insect or a mildewy disease I do not know–but I am determined to find out and root it out! Though I love red in general and red roses in particular, I don’t like that color in my garden:  it’s too dramatic. I like everything in the garden to be kind of faded and mixed together, and red doesn’t mix well. So I prefer yellow roses above all, even though Kate Greenaway (my source for all things Victorian) tells me that yellow roses mean “a decrease of love, jealousy” in her Language of Flowers.  Surprising symbolism for such a warm and sunny color! For some reason, I also have a bright orange rose bush, which I don’t particularly care for but as it’s such a vigorous climber–and completely resistant to any pest– I would never tear it out. And if the roses are blooming in New England the lady’s mantle is too–this year it looks particularly abundant.

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Yellow Roses Wallpaper V and A William Morris 1877

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Yellow (and pink and orange) roses in my garden interspersed with Mr. Darcy on the deck, “Roses” wallpaper by William Morris (1877) and “Briar” wallpaper by C.F.A. Voysey (1901), Victoria & Albert Museum London.

First Foray

Between my end-of-semester obligations and travel I have completely neglected my garden during its busiest season, so I took my first foray out there this weekend for a quick assessment. As usual, there have been losses (even with the impressive snow cover we had this year) and gains: ferns, ferns, and more ferns, popping up everywhere. My borders of lady’s mantle on one side and golden alexanders on the other are fine, but the center perennial bed needs work–so off to the nursery I went. There are several nurseries that I like in our (greater) area, but this weekend I went up to one of my most dependable destinations, Rolling Green Nursery in Greenland, New Hampshire: nice people, nice layout, good selection, good advice. This year, they seem to have expanded their selection of garden statues quite dramatically. After a brief glance at the big hand and mushroom, I went straight for the germander, a great herb for edging, of which Rolling Green seems to have a constant supply. Then it was off to the water garden for inspiration (ours is a mess), shade plants, and shrubs.

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Back at home, I made my first foray into the dirt to plant and weed (already!) and rearrange; a few spots look okay, but most of the garden is not ready for prime time yet.

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Old Wethersfield

Whenever I’m heading home from New Jersey or New York or points south, I always like to stop in at Old Wethersfield, Connecticut:  it’s a beautiful village just off the highway and just outside Hartford:  a convenient respite for a weary traveler. Old Wethersfield is a National Register Historic District, comprising 100+ houses from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries situated along a main thoroughfare and a slender rectangular green, which is part of the larger town of Wethersfield. I had two restless guys with me yesterday but they still let me stop for a bit, to take pictures of some of my favorite houses and briefly run into Comstock, Ferre & Company, which has been selling heirloom seeds for two centuries. Wethersfield is known not only for its colonial architecture, but also for its venerable seed companies, including Comstock and the Charles C. Hart Seed Co. in the present and a whole host of provisioners in the past. The most profitable product of these companies, a red “Wethersfield Onion”, even gave the old town the nickname “Oniontown” for a while. I am also compelled to mention Wethersfield’s fascinating/notorious founder, John Oldham, who was exiled from the Plymouth Colony for “plotting against pilgrim rule” and went on to establish settlements in Hull, Gloucester, and Watertown, Massachusetts, and eventually Wethersfield, the first English settlement in Connecticut. (Oldham seems to have rubbed shoulders with Salem’s founder, Roger Conant, on more than one occasion). Travel and Leisure magazine just designated Old Wethersfield one of America’s “prettiest winter towns”, and it certainly appeared so yesterday afternoon with snow lining the brick sidewalks and artfully draped on the colorful colonial houses.

Just a small sampling of Old Wethersfield, New Year’s Day 2013:

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The plaques and signs refer to the house above, as in the case of one of Old Wethersfield’s most famous houses, the Webb House, pictured below with its neighbors.

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More!!! And as you can see, there are “newer” houses in Old Wethersfield too.

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The Comstock building, obviously a livelier place in the summer but still very much open, and an 1899 seed catalog cover featuring the Wethersfield Onion, the “greatest onion on earth”,  from the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ Collection.

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Wethersfield Onion Smithsonian


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