Tag Archives: gardening

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


Tending the Garden (not)

Usually I like it when my personal and professional lives intersect, but not now. I am working on two courses this summer and several writing projects, all of which involve Renaissance gardening texts in one way or another. So I’m reading about what I should be doing in the garden, and not doing it, for lack of time and energy. Like many scholars before and around me, I’m pretty dedicated to restoring gardening to the Renaissance art (and science) it once was, and I’ve got lots of evidence to support my view. Depending on their status and wealth, sixteenth-century people saw gardening as a way to reclaim paradise lost, glory in God’s creation, and, of course, feed themselves; it was serious business all around.  In England, there was an intensifying and rather democratic demand for gardening advice, resulting in about 20 titles published in the sixteenth century alone, with more to come in the next century.

Looking over these texts today, the practical passages seem to be speaking to me, particularly those offering weeding advice, since I am not out back weeding.  Obviously I would prefer to read about it!  Here is Thomas Tusser giving me instructions for June, in verse, in his A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandry (1557; later expanded to Five Hundreth Pointes of  Good Husbandrie): in June get thy wedehoke, they knife and thy glove:  and wede out such wede, as the corne doth not love.  Slack no time thy weding, for darth nor for cheape:  thy corne shall reward it, or ever thou reape.  Well, I am slackingTusser’s contemporary Thomas Hill, author of The Gardener’s Labyrinth (1577), does not agree with the former’s technique:  In this plucking up, and purging of the Garden beds of weeds and stones, the same about the plants aught rather to be exercised with the hand, than with an Iron instrument, for fear of feebling the young plants yet small and tender of growth. He want me to dig in and get my hands dirty, but as my rather overgrown garden is full of well-established plants, I think I can go for the iron–I really like this “skrapple” in William Lawson’s New Orchard and Garden (1618).

I’m skipping over to two slightly less practical garden writers of the seventeenth century:  John Parkinson, King James I’s apothecary and a gardener himself, and the more famous Francis Bacon, who included a charming little essay on gardens among his Essays (1625).  Parkinson’s books are appealing because they demonstrate his own interests and expertise, cultivated on his estate near present-day Covent Garden.  London was an emerging metropolis in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it still had patches of undeveloped land and urban gardens, as illustrated by Ralph Agas’s contemporary map of the city.

North of the Strand was Mr. Parkinson’s garden at Long Acre, where he cultivated the English flowers that are the subject of his two major works, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (Park-in-Sun’s Terrestrial Paradise, 1629), and Theatrum Botanicum (The Botanical Theatre or Theatre of Plants, 1640). Parkinson’s books gave plant-specific advice, from an upper-middle-class urban perspective, thus they are perfect for a suburban gardener such as myself. In their own time, Parkinson’s books were no doubt popular because of the inclusion of woodcut illustrations, like the mallows below.

Francis Bacon’s little essay on gardens is part of his major collection, Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall (1625). This was a definite sideline for him, and I can’t imagine it receiving much attention at the time of its publication given the horticultural competition, but centuries after there are some lavishly-presented editions of the essay, which offers more inspiration than advice.

Bacon’s Essay on Gardens, 1625, 1902 & 1905 ( Illuminated Manuscript on Vellum by Alberto Sangorski, courtesy Book Aesthete).

Enough reading and writing: time to get out there, among the weeds and spent flowers:  it’s mid-June, and duty calls. Everything is satisfactory in the shade border in the foreground (thanks to the very tidy Lady’s Mantle), but the central garden is not getting its close-up until I clean it up, one way or another.  Not this morning, however, as it is raining, and all of my experts tell me that the best time to pull weeds is two days after the rain.



Long Hill

Just to the north of Salem, over the Danvers River, is the city of Beverly, of similar size demographically but much larger geographically.  Beverly has a vibrant downtown, which is surrounded by lots of neighborhoods which are quite distinct: Ryal Side on the river, the historic Cove, the affluent coastal communities of Beverly Farms and Pride’s Crossing, inland Montserrat and Centerville, and North Beverly.  This is not an exhaustive list; neighborhood identities are well-established in Beverly. There are amazing Gilded Age mansions in the Farms and Pride’s Crossing, and the entire North Shore coast achieved an even more gilded reputation after President William Howard Taft made Beverly the site of his “Summer White House” in 1909, first renting the Stetson Cottage at Woodbury Point in the Cove and then “Parramatta”, a house in Montserrat.

President Taft’s first Summer White House in Beverly; after 2 summers here, his landlady, Mrs. Maria Evans, informed the President that she was replacing the house with an Italian garden (still there, in the now-public Lynch Park)!  The house was cut into halves, put on barges, and floated across the water to Peaches Point in Marblehead.  You can see all the pictures at the digital exhibition of the Beverly Historical Society.  Paramatta, the second Taft Summer White House, is below.

By way of introducing I am digressing!  Suffice it to say that Beverly had a well-established reputation as the site of a wealthy and politically-connected summer society before and after the coming of President Taft, and the architecture to prove it.  I’m going to take on a few of the greater North Shore’s more famous (and interesting) summer “cottages” myself this summer,but in the meantime you can satisfy any curiosity you may have with the wonderful book by Pamela W. Fox, North Shore Boston: Country Houses of Essex County, 1865-1930, or Joseph Garland’s Bostons Gold Coast: The North Shore, 1890-1929.

One theme that emerges from both books is the difference between the simple wooden structures built by the Boston Brahmins before Taft’s time and the more elaborate mansions built by non-Bostonians after.  That trend does not quite apply to the house that I am writing about today, Long Hill, built by Atlantic Monthly editor-owner Ellery Sedgwick and his wife Mabel in then-rural Centerville, away from the maddening crowd on the coast.  Sedgwick’s Massachusetts (western Massachusetts) roots go way back, but he did not choose to build a restrained Yankee cottage; instead he and Mrs. Sedgwick copied (and mined) a dilapidated Southern house:  the Isaac Ball House (1802) in Charleston, South Carolina. I tried and tried to find a photograph of the original Charleston house in situ, to no avail (only turning up images of the Ball family’s several plantations, all in sad states, and a few references to the “town house”) but Long Hill, completed around 1921, is supposed to be a close copy.

When I visited Long Hill the other day, I ran into some architect friends of mine, who pointed out details that I would have not seen on my own:  the perfect proportions (sadly missing in modern “Georgian” Mcmansions), the old, weathered, mellowed brick, certainly not circa 1920 brick, the very delicate columns, the classical details.  It is a charming house, well-situated, but it still looks a bit out-of-place to me.  I’m more impressed with the gardens, and all the surrounding woodland.  I never really understood why the Sedgwicks wanted to be so far away from coastal “society” (and breezes), because I never really knew about Mrs. Sedgwick’s horticultural interests—and achievements.  The author of The Garden Month by Month (1907, lots of illustrations and a pull-out flower color chart) wanted land, not ocean views, and she and her husband acquired 114 acres in Centerville on which to build not only their house but their very cultivated garden, even more impressive because of the contrast between it and the woodlands beyond.  Mabel Cabot Sedgwick died in 1937, but her husband remarried another horticulturalist, Marjorie Russell Sedgwick, who continued to improve the gardens at Long Hill.  The property was transferred to the Trustees of Reservations in 1979, and remains a peaceful, pastoral retreat.

The gardens at Long Hill:  woodlands surround the manicured lawns and garden “rooms” adjacent to the house:  blooming Solomon’s Seal, wisteria & peonies.


Gardening by Mail

Leaving aside our unnaturally warm March week, this is the first really springlike weekend, and a long one at that with the commemoration of Patriot’s Day here in Massachusetts on Monday.  Lots of things have popped up in the garden, though I suspect many plants never went to sleep during this warm winter.  I’m not sure what I’ve lost; there are some conspicuous holes but it’s still a bit early.  In any case, I always buy a few things in the spring and find places for them, often from some of my tried-and-true catalog sources.

The healthiest and hardiest plants in my garden come from Perennial Pleasures Nursery in East Hardwick, Vermont.  When I started the garden over a decade ago, I wanted to have only heirloom plants, and their little catalogs featured lots of varieties from the 17th through the 19th centuries, along with all the essential information about how to grow them.  I learned a lot from those catalogs, and I still have them, as well as all of the plants I purchased from them.  Now Perennial Pleasures only sells their specialty, phlox (of which they have many varieties that you cannot get anywhere else), by mail, along with a few other plants, but their plant guide (which you can download from their website) remains an essential reference for gardeners.  And if you’re in the Northeast Kingdom this summer, they have a Phlox Festival during the first two weeks of August.

After a couple of summers, I abandoned my “heirlooms only” rule because it was a little limiting, and there are lots of beautiful modern varietals out there that I wanted in my garden.  One particular summer, I became obsessed with alstroemeria, and the search for more varieties took me (virtually) to Digging Dog Nursery in northern California.  Since that time I’ve moved on from alstroemeria but not from Digging Dog, which supplies lots of healthy and well-established plants that you seldom see in regular nurseries.

Another online source of plants you don’t see anywhere and everywhere is Avant Gardens of Dartmouth, Massachusetts.  I generally drive down there as it’s not too far for me but I know they do a large mail-order business.  Lots of varieties of my favorite perennials, like the masterwort above, and unusual annuals as well.

Seeds have been a mail-order product for more than a century, and one of the oldest US suppliers is Comstock, Ferre & Co. of Wethersfield, Connecticut, a beautiful colonial town just outside Hartford.  Except for a little recent gap during which they were purchased by Missouri-based Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Comstock has been in the business of selling “hardy northern” seeds for 200 years. You can purchase their heirloom seeds online or at their retail location in Wethersfield, a charming cluster of buildings. Their seeds come in really lovely packets, another major attraction for me.  In fact, I am rather ashamed to admit that I have purchased seeds in the past (like the vegetable assortment from Monticello below) simply because I liked the packets they came in.

Now that I’ve shifted the focus of this post from plants to paper I might as well keep going!  Gardening by mail has a long history, and the Smithsonian Institutions Libraries have a great collection of  nursery catalogs from around the world and the last century or so.  Here are some of my favorites:  from a local seller in black and white, and nurseries in England and Maryland in vibrant chromolithographic color.  How different the last two catalogs are:  a rather restrained British offering of “golden” seeds and an exuberant display of Italian-American patriotism in the waning days of World War I.


Globally-warmed Gardens

Unlike my students and nearly every one I run into, I’m not relishing this rare warm March weather.  I like warm (not hot) weather as much as the next person, but in season.  If there’s going to be a bright sun out there, I would prefer that there are leaves on the trees for shelter and shade.  Yesterday the temperature rose into the mid 80s which is just wrong for March in Massachusetts.  Last year was an amazing year for my garden, well-protected and -watered by a blanket of snow all winter long, but this year I am worried.  Looking around the web for some advice and reassurance, I instead became more alarmed when I came across the website for a campaign by the National Trust in Great Britain from 2010: A Plant in Time sought to raise environmental awareness by examining how climate change could end gardening as we know it.

The point, and the cause, is well-illustrated, literally, by three paintings by artist Rob Collins showing the effects of rising temperatures on the classic English garden—essentially it evolves into a Mediterranean one.

The end of the English garden is a dismal prospect indeed!  I look at my own (New) English garden, where blooms abound, and wonder if I’m going to see the same transformation:  the disappearance of the lawn, the roses, the delphiniums (actually, my delphiniums never come back anyway).  The National Wildlife Foundation’s Gardener’s Guide to Global Warming informs me that I’m still in my old 6B Plant Hardiness Zone, but also that at least one iconic Massachusetts plant, the mayflower, will disappear in the next few decades due to climate change.


Of Mummies and Mums

I discovered an amazing woman last week, a woman who was creative (and versatile) enough to have written a very early science fiction book about a time-traveling mummy as well as a series of popular garden books, which she also illustrated. Jane Webb Loudon (1807-1858) was born into a wealthy industrial family and later married to a gentleman, but both father and husband left her virtually penniless and to her own devices. She made her own way, in her own fashion.

When she was only 20, Jane published (anonymously) The Mummy!:  Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, featuring an Egyptian mummy named Cheops who is “reanimated” in 2126 in a very connected, technological, and female-dominated world which is nevertheless plagued by political discord and moral decay. No doubt she was influenced by the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a decade earlier, as well as the fascination with all things Egyptian, initiated by Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798, and the publication of his entourage’s 24-volume Description of Egypt. The Mummy! (love the exclamation point) apparently sold well and relieved Miss Webb of some of the financial stress she must have felt after the death of her father.

Jane connected her world to that of the future through steam:  still a dynamic force, it powered the movement of people, houses and plows. The reference to a steam-powered plow caught the attention of her future husband, John Claudius Loudon, an increasingly-eminent horticultural writer and landscape architect nearly twenty years her senior.  They met, married, had a daughter, and forged a professional relationship in addition to their personal one, working together on a series of agricultural encyclopedias and guides to garden design.  As a novice gardener herself, Jane must have realized that her husband’s technical publications would not satisfy the demand for more accessible gardening advice, and so she began authoring a series of illustrated books catering to the ladies: Young Ladies Book of Botany (1838), Gardening for Ladies (1840), Botany for Ladies (1842) and the multi-volume Ladies Companion to the Flower Garden, published just after her husband’s death in 1843.

Before his death, Mr. Loudon became involved in an arboretum plan that left Jane saddled with debt (shades of her father’s “legacy”), so she ramped up her publishing, catering to the demand that she virtually created with more popular gardening books for ladies, illustrated with the colorful groupings of flowers that would be the standard in horticultural illustration for years to come. Chromolithography probably broadened the appeal of the multiple editions of The Ladies’ Flower Garden and British Wild Flowers as well, and consequently the self-taught Mrs. Loudon seems to have emerged as a more recognizable authority on Victorian gardening than her scholarly husband.

Plates from The Ladies’ Flower Garden of Ornamental Annuals (1842) and British Wild Flowers (1846), Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

I’d like to know a lot more about Jane Webb Loudon so I’m chasing down a few sources. Sheffield Hallam University reportedly has one her scrapbooks in its archives which I’d love to see and the National Trust has published a modern version of Mr. Loudon’s travel diaries titled In Search of English Gardens:  The Travels of John Claudius Loudon and His Wife Jane (ed. Patricia Boniface, National Trust Classics, 1987).


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