Tag Archives: gardening

Midsummer Mallows

I like several varieties of plants in the large mallow (malvaceae) family, most particularly the older common varieties rather than the showy hollyhocks and hibiscus which are really too big for my garden. There are musk mallows and malva sylvestris at the front of one border, but in the back is my very favorite: marsh mallow, or althaea officinalis. This is an old, fabled plant which is tall and velvety, with soft pink flowers, appearing just about now. Like all plants which officinalis status, marsh mallow was an important medicinal plant in the ancient, medieval, and early modern eras, the basis of soothing syrups and balms for throats, stomachs, skin–even teeth. The marsh mallow plant had edible uses in the past too: its sap was extracted and mixed with nuts and honey (and later sugar and corn syrup) to make a confection, and its root was boiled for use in both sweets and “sallets”. Modern marshmallows have no marsh mallow in them, but several “organic” skin creams do. I looked in vain through my sixteenth-sources for a sweet marsh mallow recipe, but found it as a principal ingredient in one of the recipes to cure lovesickness in Jacques Ferrand’s classic seventeenth-century treatise. So there you are: a plant that is both utilitarian and beautiful.

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Above: my marsh mallows. Below, hollyhocks in the Ropes Mansion Garden–I’m showing you close-ups rather than the entire plants because they seem to be stricken with some sort of rusty disease. My other mallows have this too–not very attractive–but the marsh mallows seem immune! 

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marsh-mallow Fidelia Bridges Prang

Salem-born Fidelia Bridges’ Marsh Mallows, produced for Prang in the 1880s, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.


Illustrations of the Improv’d Garden

I discovered the prolific British illustrator Clare Melinsky just recently, and apparently too late to obtain the examples of her work that I covet the most: illustrations based on several eighteenth-century gardening manuals by clergyman John Laurence, including: The Clergy-Man’s Recreation: Shewing the Pleasure and Profit of the Art of Gardening, The Gentleman’s Recreation: Or the Second Part of the Art of Gardening Improved, and (an apparent pseudonym) Charles Evelyn, The Lady’s Recreation: Or, the Art of Gardening Farther Improv’d (bound together in variant editions, 1717-1719, along with The Fruit-Garden Kalendar: Or, a Summary of the Art of Managing the Fruit-Garden). These are wonderful little practical books, and Melinsky’s clean linocut prints look like they are culled from the texts: they are period perfection and absolutely charming. Melinsky’s portfolio includes everything from The Witches of Salem: A Documentary Narrative (London: Folio Society, 1982) to the covers of the Bloomsbury boxed set of hardback “signature editions” of Harry Potter, and lots of flora and folktales and Shakespeare in between. Everything looks lovely, and I look forward to enjoying more of her work as time goes by but right now I’m pretty fixated on the unattainable “improv’d garden”  images–though her similar Robert Burns postcards might just suffice.

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Melinsky Cards Collage Garden

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Melinsky Kew Gardens

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Clare Melinsky’s Linocut “Gardening Improv’d” cards, along with a more “modern” illustration of Kew Gardens and a witch (just because) from here and here; Frontispiece ilustrations to Laurence’s Gardening Improv’d parts II and III, 1719.

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Bringing back the Borders

I’ve been volunteering at the Derby House garden at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site this month: weeding, pruning, discovering and identifying new/old plants. This is actually a modern garden designed to look like a colonial one, with seven beds (or parterres d’ broderie) filled with herbs and flowers that would have been available in the eighteenth century. Maintenance of the garden has been a bit spotty in years past owing to the reliance on volunteers, so it’s quite a tangle now but has very good bones. My own garden has a similar structure (though it is much smaller), which has led to my obsession with edging, and the Derby garden features two of my favorite edging plants: germander and hyssop. I see my work as defending these hedges from intruding plants which have broken through the neat borders: stand back, viola!  The other benefit of tackling an overgrown garden is the ongoing sense of discovery as you reveal what is within the borders: we found a completely covered lungwort early on and every day we seem to find more European ginger and bits of borders we thought were no longer there. My battle to contain combative comfrey wore me out yesterday, but I’ll soldier on tomorrow.

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Derby House Garden

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My colleagues Charles and Catie and features of the Derby House garden: hedges, lungwort,  and roses and peonies in bloom.


Green and White

Summer has come to Salem over the last few days and everything is very green–and white, the perfect colors of renewal. The viburnum is so dominant this time of year, but so are spirea and white dogwoods, along with azaleas, deutzias and lilacs. And those are just the shrubs and trees: you can look up, down, and over and see a trail of white just about everywhere at this time of year. The Peirce-Nichols garden has a field of pink bleeding-hearts, but just a few steps away at the Ropes Mansion are my favorite white ones (my own, sadly, did not come back this year), along with beautiful border of white irises. I’m off to replace my bleeding hearts (if I can find the white ones–pink are far more plentiful) and look for some new shrubs for the perimeter of my garden, as I am very tired of my boring forsythias as well as a sad espaliered crab-apple tree. I am open to suggestions: not just for white-flowering shrubs, but no pink please!

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Green, (black) and white around Salem, late May 2016.


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!

Woad Stained Pict Warriors John White BM


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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