Tag Archives: gardening

Hildegarde’s Gardening Book

The granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hildegarde Hawthorne (Oskinson) followed in the family business and published a wide variety of works over her lifetime (1871-1952), including children’s books, travel books, poetry, and biographies. I posted previously on one of her “rambles” books, Old Seaports of New England, because it features Salem prominently, but it is not my favorite of her titles: that preference is her garden book, The Lure of the Garden (1911). Gardening books by society ladies such as Hildegarde are a dime a dozen in this era, but The Lure of the Garden is different: it’s not a practical tome or simply an appreciation of the botanical beauty, but rather a series of essays on different cultural aspects of the garden, in her time and over time: from “Our Grandmother’s Garden” to “Childhood in the Garden” to “The Social Side of Gardens” to “Gardens in Literature”. It’s beautifully written (I think shorter-form essays are her strong suit) and beautifully illustrated, by Maxfield Parrish, Jules Guérin, Sigismond de Ivanowski, Anna Whelan Betts, and others, with plates in both color and black and white, paintings, drawings, and photographs. Throughout the book, the theme of the garden as a private refuge and true reflection of one’s inner self emerges, both very literally in considerations of enclosure and garden gates as well as through textual and visual illustration, as she shows off her connections and takes us into the “Gardens of Well-Known People” such as Parrish, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Cecilia Beaux, Edith Wharton, and Stephen Parrish. For all this (and because I am dealing with the menace of powdery mildew right now), I think my favorite chapter is “Some Garden Vices”, in which the garden is portrayed as an autonomous entity, showering “pity and love to its ugliest weed” to a touching though infuriating extent: it will spare no pains to convey to this voracious plant all the delicately prepared food destined for your lilies or your phlox, will discover the utmost art in draining its water toward the thick roots of its favorite, give it sun and shadow, sweat and labor for it. If you snatch the hateful progeny from its arms, leave only the slightest portion of root behind, that patient, devoted garden will nurse the battered and wounded thing back again to life and health, to flaunt triumphantly in bed and border. As this is Hildegarde’s extravagant prose in reference to weeds, you can imagine her descriptions of more covetous cultivations.

Lure of the Garden Cover

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Hildegarde Hawthorne’s The Lure of the Garden is available here.


Rose Reverie

These are the rose weeks of the summer in central New England: while newer varieties of roses are bred to be repeat- or ever-blooming the older varieties bloom now, so if you walk the streets of an older city or town you’re going to see bursting bushes behind and over fences and along porches and foundations. Often red or a very very dark pink. I’m not certain what cultivar these roses are: at first glance they appear to be of the gallica variety, the oldest type of rose to be cultivated in Europe which was brought to North America in the seventeenth century. Certainly several of the rose bushes in the “Colonial” garden behind the Derby House are gallica, cultivated for their medicinal and household uses as much as for their beauty. When I’m walking down the street taking photographs of rose bushes at this time of year and happen to spot a homeowner in close proximity, I always ask about their roses, and I nearly always get the answer: oh they’ve been there forever.

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Salem was a horticultural haven in the nineteenth century, so it’s fairly easy to find out what people were growing and showing. When I look through periodicals like the New England Farmer, and Horticultural Register or the Transactions of the Essex Horticultural Society it is pretty clear that most people were more excited about dahlias than roses at mid-century, though Francis Putnam did have quite a collection of showy roses on hand, including La Reine, Duchess of Sutherland, Aubernon, Baron Prevost, Madame Laffey, Madame Damame, Mrs. Eliot, Devoniensis, Bon Silene, Bossuet, and Anne Boleyn, though he was a florist by trade. I have a pink David Austin Anne Boleyn rosebush in my garden, though I doubt it’s the same cultivar as Mr. Putnam’s nineteenth-century varietal. According to Alice Morse Earle’s Old Time Gardens, Newly Set Forth (1901), an even more storied English rose, the “York and Lancaster” striped gallica, could once be found on the grounds of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace in its original location on Union Street. Interest in the “old-time” roses was clearly reviving in the latter part of the nineteenth century, as was the lore attached to all sorts of flowers according to the “language” attributed to them, but serious garden writers always cautioned against mixing up the York and Lancaster with its similarly-striped cousin, the “Rosa Mundi” rose, which had even earlier “historical” origins.

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Roses Collage

Rosa Mundi Cutis Botanical MagazineJohn Ramsbottom’s “King Penguin” book, 1939, with its York and Lancaster illustration; Mrs. L. Burke’s The Language of Flowers, 1865; Rosa Mundi from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1790s.

Enough of history and let’s see some more roses about town, including my own (first up) which are modern David Austin varieties: my house was a working (rooming) house for much of its life and I doubt there was space (or time) for a flower garden, so I don’t have any old rosebushes. I don’t like any red in the garden for some reason (though I love it indoors), so it’s pink and yellow and ivory for me. Then we have: one of my favorite pocket gardens on Botts Court, two very dependable displays nearby, and the particularly lush roses behind (not in) the Ropes Mansion Garden—just love these. It’s summer now.

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September Strategies

I had high hopes for this particular September, one of the very few Septembers that I didn’t have to go back to school as a student or teacher in my entire life as I am on sabbatical. I’ve always thought that September was one of the most beautiful months of the year, and looked forward to long golden walks after I put in several hours of reading and writing. We’re halfway through the month, and so far it hasn’t turned out that way: the weather was unbearably muggy and hot in the first week of September, and last week I had pneumonia! But I’m on the mend now, so those walks will happen, and in the meantime I have been extraordinarily productive, so I have adopted a pre-modern mentality and come to the conclusion that it was God’s will that I stay inside and write. With both my lungs and the weather clearing up, however, I’m planning on a more (physically) active second half of the month.

I’m working with early modern prescriptive literature: texts on how to better “order” your health and household and garden, and feeling deficient in my own “government” of all of the above. September was a busy month for my seventeenth-century authors, who prescribe many activities for their readers: harvesting, preserving, cleaning, potting-up, sowing and sewing, among other monthly tasks. In his Kalendarium Hortense, which was published in fourteen editions from 1664, the famous diarist John Evelyn is a taskmaster for two gardens, or really three: the orchard (he was a big forestry proponent, for both timber and fruit), the “olitory garden” (a word he apparently made up) which produced plants for culinary and medicinal uses, and the “parterre” or flower garden. As you can read below, much is in prime during September so there is much to do in all three gardens.

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I’m reading these texts for specific information about life and learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but it occurred to me that gardening and husbandry texts, in particular, are great sources for understanding climate change as the authors take careful note of the existing weather conditions. September was as much a transitional month for them as it is for us. Michaelmas is really the turning point: before that it can be either hot or cold. After our very humid early September, I was kind of relieved to read the observations of Thomas Tryon, a wealthy merchant, popular author, and energetic advocate of vegetarianism who seemed to exist on nothing but gruel in the month of September as the Air (which is the Life of the Spirit in all Cities and great Towns) is thick and sulpherous , full of gross Humidity (YES!) which has its source from many uncleanesses…..I guess they had to suffer through humidity as well, even in the midst of the “Little Ice Age”.

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The more elaborate horticultural texts are sources for garden design, machinery, experimental crops–even adjoining houses. One of my favorites is John Worlidge’s Systema Agriculturae, the Mystery of Husbandry Discovered (1669) , which also included a “Kalendarium Rusticum” of monthly tasks for the larger estate as well as other reference materials. This is a pretty substantive text describing the workings of a pretty substantive estate: thank goodness there is an epitome! For the steward of such an estate, as opposed to the mere gardener or farmer, September is all about getting ready for the plough, mending your fences, making cider (which Worlidge calls the “wine” of Britain) and perry, drying your hops, sowing a host of vegetables and planting your bulbs, gathering your saffron, “retiring” your tender plants into the conservatory, and tending to your bees. In these early days of an emerging agricultural revolution, it’s good to see some machines to help with all of this work: Worlidge’s work–and his calendar–are aimed at more of a collective or national audience than that of the individual householder as his reference to a “System” implies.

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September walter_d_ae_garten_idstein_fruehling_florilegium_nassau_idstein_1663 The 1681 edition of Worlidge’s Systema Agriculturae; a more ornamental continental garden from the Nassau-Idstein Florilegium by Johann Walter the Elder, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.


Beautiful but Deadly

In support of the summer-long celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion in Salem, better known as the House of the Seven Gables, Salem State has offered up a Hawthorne film series in partnership with the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and this week our last film will be shown: Twice-Told Tales (1963). Since we started with The House of the Seven Gables (1940), it will be interesting to see Vincent Price, who played Clifford in that film in a rather straightforward fashion, in what I assume will be his more characteristic over-the-top style. He plays key characters in all three stories of this anthology film, and Dr. Rappaccini himself in the central story, Rappaccini’s Daughter, which just happens to be my favorite Hawthorne short story (it was actually first published in book form in Mosses from an Old Manse rather than Twice Told Tales, but I’m sure this was of no concern to Hollywood). Rappaccini’s Daughter is the favorite Hawthorne tale of many, and it has inspired many visual and literary impressions and adaptations—particularly in the last decade or so. Its allegory makes it endlessly captivating for successive generations, but I think its most recent popularity is due to its rather macabre storyline: the transformation of a young beautiful woman who tends a garden of poisonous plants and in doing so becomes both immune but also a poisonous vessel herself is Gothic in the extreme.

Poison Garden Jessie Willcox SmithJesse Willcox Smith, 1900

My particular fascination is the paradox of beauty and toxicity in nature. How can plants as beautiful as monkshood and foxglove be deadly? I have neither in my garden at present, but my very first garden at this house was comprised entirely of plants used in the medieval and early modern eras as plague cures. It did not last long, as most of these plants were really unattractive and I didn’t have quite enough sun for them anyway, so I dug it up and dispersed the more attractive plants in a more conventional flower garden. My favorite survivor of the “plague garden” is rue, a beautiful and ethereal blue-ish gray shrub with yellow flowers that I just sheared off yesterday, with not a care in the world for the potential harm that its leaves could have caused to my skin. How could the “Herb of Grace” cause harm? Obviously it’s not the plant itself but ignorance of its “attributes”; it’s not the medicine but the dose. It’s not nature; it’s man (or woman).

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Poisonous Actea RubraMy newly-shorn rue and its illustration in my favorite Renaissance herbal, that of Giovanni Cadamosto (late 15th Century, British Library MS Harley 3736); A much more OBVIOUS poisonous plant in my garden, baneberry or Actaea Rubra: beware of those berries!

Even more paradoxical than a poisonous plant is a poisonous garden, as gardens are supposed to be places of rest, relaxation, wonder and contemplation: sanctuaries where one can find refuge from the busy (and threatening) world outside. Rappaccini’s Daughter is set in Padua, so I believe that Hawthorne was likely influenced by its famous Botanical Garden, established in 1545 and still thriving with over 7000 plant varieties including a collection of poisonous plants, “which are also in the medicinal plants sector because in suitable quantities they can be used to treat illness and diseases”. Also didactic, but a bit more menacing, is the Duchess of Northumbria’s Poison Garden in Alnwick, England, which features more than 100 lethal plants, several of which are in cages, all just part of a much larger botanical attraction and experience. The Duchess wanted to pique the curiosity of children in horticulture, and it probably doesn’t hurt that her estate “starred” as Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. She also produced a series of books for children titled The Poison Diaries, the first of which has absolutely amazing illustrations by Colin Stimpson of venomous plants “in character”. Scary, but not nearly as scary as the Poison Tree which “stole” into William Blake’s garden, his own creation.

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Poison Tree BlakeAlnwick’s Poison Garden; a Colin Stimpson illustration from the Poison Diaries; William Blake’s Poison Tree from Songs of Experience, 1794, British Museum.


Coming up Roses

I’m in a bit of a funk about our city right now, but still mid-June is glorious nearly everywhere in New England, and Salem is no exception: it’s time to celebrate the roses, and the lushness all around us. Roses are spilling under and over fences all over town, whether they are wooden picket, wrought iron, or chain-link. We have passed through the period of the peony and the rhododendron (not a fan of either–too lush) into that of roses, lady’s mantle, and mountain laurel. I wish I could keep the roses going in my own garden, but they seldom put on such a flagrant display after June: they just spurt, and it doesn’t matter how much Neem oil I spray on them, their leaves always turn yellow. But they look good now! Here is this year’s crop, followed by some of my favorite roses around town. Rose bushes are difficult to photograph: the one just below my collage, which is on the fence of the Phillips House on Chestnut Street, is actually more lavender than pink.

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There are several of the old Rosa Gallica, or “apothecary’s rose” shrubs in the colonial garden behind Salem Maritime’s Derby House, and I also saw some in the garden of the Munroe Tavern in Lexington as I was driving by last week. I would love one, but I’d kill it. I was scouting out the site of the new archival center that the Lexington Historical Society is building adjacent to the Tavern: now I’m jealous of both Lexington’s old roses and the imminent accessibility of its archives!

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Back in Salem and in my garden, the lady’s mantle is peaking, as is the rue (which lasts for most of the summer–a truly marvelous herb), and I found some beautiful variegated catmint for a new border: the cats walk right by it so I don’t think it’s a particularly potent variety. I also put in some masterwort (astrantia) plants along the border of the shade garden: their flowers look like little jeweled brooches and I hope they keep appearing all summer long.

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RosesSalem and Lexington flowering, June 2018.


Salem Garden Tour 2017

My takeaway from the weekend’s garden tour in Salem is a renewed appreciation of structure in the garden: fences, pergolas, pillars and garden sheds were everywhere in evidence, and both the small and large gardens were oriented towards the architecture of their adjacent houses. I’ve always been a bit more botanical-based, but now I find myself desperately wanting a little garden house! It was a very eclectic tour, ranging from very small gardens on River Street to a palatial garden on Chestnut, with a beautifully structured classical garden on Federal Street in between. We toured in the morning, well before a torrential downpour in the later afternoon–which must have stranded lots of people under available porches, or some other convenient structure. As for plant material, there was mildew-free bee balm, very well-kept roses, lots of vines, and lavender that is much more lush than mine. As always, I feel grateful to the gardeners/homeowners who put themselves out there and allowed us all to trespass for a while.

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Garden Tour Chestnut lastSalem Gardens (+sheds) on River, Federal and Chestnut Streets.


Peaking and Strolling (in Gardens)

I’m looking forward to the Salem Garden Club’s biennial tour tomorrow, “A Stroll through the Garden’s of Salem’s McIntire District”, which will take place right in my neighborhood. All proceeds go towards the club’s community beautification projects, which are numerous and conspicuous! My garden was on this tour a while ago, early on in my knowledge of gardening in general and relationship with this particular garden, so I remember thinking “July–that’s so late” when they gave me the date. But several ladies assured me that Salem gardens peak in July. When the date for the tour came up, my garden was indeed peaking. I was happy about that in one way, but sad in another–I decided that I didn’t want my garden to have just one peak but rather to “crest” through the summer. So I changed its constitution a bit and brought in more plants picked for their leaves rather than their flowers. Right now the mallows are flowering, the meadowsweet just popped, and the first of the daylilies–but the roses are in a funk and the lady’s mantle is done. Something weird is going on with my bee balm–lots of powdery mildew which I’ve never seen before. But the border plants, germander, calamint, and veronica, are finally established and doing just fine. It’s all a bit subtle, which is what I’m going for, but I’m sure that tomorrow we will be able to peak in on gardens that are really peaking!

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