Tag Archives: gardening

From My Bookshelf: Beverley Nichols

Some years ago, back in the late twentieth century when I was an avid gardener and had not yet wrecked back or knee, let alone developed the revolting mold allergy that later drove me away from grubbing in the soil or concocting smelly brews for feeding rose bushes. . . back once upon a time, I stumbled across the books of an English writer named Beverley Nichols and discovered his passion for flowers and horticulture. His writing on gardens is lyrical and enchanting. He can wax poetic about the star-shaped blooms of winter jasmine or whip up a wickedly funny caricature of his neighbor and rival gardener, the terrifying Mrs. M.

Charmed by the accounts of his wonderful gardens, and already wild about growing roses, lilacs, and just about anything that bloomed, I devoured his garden writings, gathered inspiration, and redoubled efforts to create my own small plot of paradise here on the prairie. (Yes, this was the era when I was braiding the green leaves of spent daffodils and dreaming of the day when I would be able to afford a small dovecot and tidy paths paved in Connecticut bluestone.)

But the prairie is cruel to cottage gardens, and time has brought the brutal rose virus that today makes me hesitate to prune my surviving bushes lest I spread the blight and bring them all down. I now own raised beds and in-ground sprinklers, yet my landscaping has never looked worse. Neglect, relentless winds, bagworms, and dog excavations make my winter garden a sorry sight indeed. I know that it isn’t money that makes a pretty garden. Love and regular care are what’s needed most.

Yet I don’t much love what I have–so many awkwardly sited plants in such a poor composition–and I no longer provide the nurturing my struggling plants need. Plans for redoing the front bed coagulate in my mind, and then I sigh and let those fine intentions dissipate among the excuses:  no time, no funds to spare on paving stones, too hard to dig and move established plants, later after the writing deadline is met, later after the semester is finished, later . . . ah, too late.

However, just before Christmas I stumbled upon a copy of Nichols’s DOWN THE GARDEN PATH and bought it for old times’ sake. I thought I had read it, and perhaps I have, but when I sat down with it this week–after reading several mediocre mysteries–I found nothing familiar except the author’s adroit turn of phrase and his keen wit. The old charm was still there. I laughed aloud at the author’s confrontations with Mrs. M and his scathing attack on garden ornaments, especially cement cupids.

An ember of the old joy rekindled into a tiny blaze. So compelling is Nichols’s prose that I almost grabbed the pruning loppers and set outside to do battle with bramble and thorny twig.

Almost.

The opening paragraph of this book, where he recounts how he read a newspaper obituary while traveling and immediately cabled an offer to buy the deceased’s country property, caught my attention at once. Because the day before I started reading DOWN THE GARDEN PATH, one of my favorite Internet sites had sent me notice of a Greek revival house for sale in Alabama. Built in 1875 and remodeled in 1892, the house–shown in a few meager pictures–set me ablaze with excitement. This, I thought, is my dream house! I have found it at last after a lifetime of yearning and hoping.

Alas, however affordable the house is, it is also at least a two-day drive away, which renders commuting to work impossible. Still, I felt the vines of temptation entwine around my brain and I let myself dream a little of chucking job, friends, community, and sanity and taking on a ramshackle, moldering house in another state where I know exactly one person. Furthermore, the house shows every evidence of lacking central heat and air. Heaven knows what the plumbing is like–if there is any. But my dream remains. Here, on the prairie, settled by wagon and land run, we have no houses built in 1875. So if I want Greek revival or Italianate architecture, I must go east.

And then I picked up Nichols’s book, where on impulse, whim, and reckless fancy, he sent a purchase offer by telegraph and bought his country cottage and garden far beyond where he lived in London. The timing of my temptation and his story seemed like serendipity at work. It seemed like a sign.

Here, I thought, is someone who did what he wanted to do. He dared act on his dream. He leaped.

So, perhaps, should I. Yet despite my artistic temperament, I don’t always let it have its way. And while I usually regret allowing my practical good sense to check me, I still go on indulging practicality perhaps more than I should.

Instead of phoning the realtor, I instead consoled myself in vicariously sharing Nichols’s  experience in having the opportunity and freedom to buy his getaway and develop his first garden as he wished. If I must immerse some of my dreams into the adventures of others, then so be it. But oh how I yearn to live as published writers could in 1930s Britain, when selling a few articles earned enough to purchase a country house. At least in the book’s pages, I could smile at the frivolity of putting umbrellas over foxgloves to protect the petals from being ruined by too much rain. And that sort of anecdote succeeded in distracting me from wild thoughts of should I call and buy the house sight unseen? Dare I ask the realtor to send more pictures?

Thanks to the Internet, which didn’t exist when I first read some of Nichols’s books, I have discovered that his writing career began with the publication of his first book PRELUDE in 1920. From then until his final book in 1982, he wrote over 60 books and plays, including the half-dozen or so garden books I knew about. There are mysteries and children’s books and travel books and biographies. Maybe I will sample and savor; maybe I will stick with the garden ones that are his best-known works. But if you would rather read about lovely gardens than break your back hoeing and weeding them, and if you want to enjoy prose in that lovely, graceful style that used to be so quintessentially English, and is now fading from newer publications, then give Nichols a try.

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Letting Go

For every thing, there is a season ….

We humans were put in charge of this planet, to tend it, nurture it, govern it, and take care of it. And when you nurture something, you have a responsibility toward it. You owe it the respect of accepting and fulfilling that responsibility. Sometimes responsibility dictates that you must kill and remove for the betterment of others. That is why we humans raise and slaughter livestock for consumption and leather goods. It is why we clear fields and plant them, and later harvest them. It is why we pull weeds from our flower and vegetable gardens, removing the plants that we don’t want to make way for those that will flower beautifully or bring us bounty to eat. It is why we chop tree roots that are threatening our house foundation.

Today, I put aside memories, regret, and sentiment and set about bringing down my biggest, first, most special, and oldest Linda Campbell rugosa rose.

In a past post, I chronicled the removal of a different, smaller rose bush of the same variety–the second plant in my current yard to succumb to the horrid rose virus now rampant across our nation. That bush held no sentiment in my heart other than its beauty and ease of care. Yet I fought the virus, fought the inevitability of the plant’s eventual demise. I kept young Linda going longer than I believed possible before I finally gave in to the ugly “witch’s broom” effect and took her out.

IMG_1366{The deformity isn’t showing well in this photo, but the affected canes are thick and soft, the leaves remain red and strangely shaped, the buds cannot open.}

Several times this year, I have daydreamed about reconfiguring my large front flower bed. It’s probably the worst landscaping I’ve ever had since I rented my first little house in graduate school and could only afford six marigold plants. At my current address, the largest plants grow in the front. Weed trees sprout in the back. The perennials are in the wrong places. The entire composition fails to please me. And if a front flowerbed is supposed to be the jewel of a home’s entrance, this one would be what’s known as a “dead rhinestone.” It has no sparkle. At its very best, it offers a mishmash of brief spring bloom. All last winter, I thought of making a few changes, of adding a bistro set, of moving the birdbath, of installing stepping stones and mulch, of making it beautiful.

Well, be careful what you wish for.

These days, all but driven from gardening of any kind by dicey joints, tendonitis, and mold allergies, I tend to think and imagine more than I actually accomplish. I have let my responsibilities to my beloved plants slip quite a bit. So I’ve been thinking about changes without making any actual push to bring them about.

Old Linda Campbell is the anchor of this front bed. Since I moved here, she’s been my showstopper, growing huge and wide and tall in the front curve of the raised bed next to the sidewalk and covering herself with enormous red bouquets of bloom all summer long. She was the first Linda Campbell rugosa I ever purchased. I bought her for the front bed of my previous home, and she thrived there in the cheap sand the builder used instead of topsoil, sheltered by the sun-warmed brick in winter and bronzed by the sun in the summer. How she bloomed! How she grew! I cut her back constantly so that visitors could walk past her without being snagged on their way to the front door. She evaded blackspot, required no dead-heading, didn’t care whether I fed her or not. We loved each other wholeheartedly.

IMG_1145{Here’s old Linda from a different year, blooming away.}

When I moved, I dug her up and plunked her into a large pot. She thrived. She survived the wind-whipped drive to her new location. She survived being dug up again by a so-called landscaper and left lying on the front lawn with her roots exposed until I saved her in the nick of time. For thirteen years she has been MY ROSE. Some of her canes are nearly as large as my wrist. Because of her, I bought several other Linda Campbells, but none of them have ever grown or bloomed as magnificently as she.

But last winter, she began to fail a bit. Last summer she contracted blackspot and staggered against it. This spring she stood a bit ragged, with dead canes in need of removal and her first flush of bloom for the season less than stellar. And then, a few weeks ago, I saw the mutated new growth that told me what was wrong.

The virus had her.

IMG_1366

I could have cut away the affected canes. I could have fed her, babied her, tried to save her, but it would be to no avail. There is no cure to this disease except destruction of the affected plant. Keeping her longer would be akin to propping up an elderly dog with cancer and letting it suffer just because I couldn’t bear to part with it.

Linda’s quality of life was doomed. So today I got out the large loppers, trash bags, my elbow-length gloves, and set to work. I bagged everything for the landfill trash since such diseased plants must NEVER go into the municipal compost. By rights, the cuttings should have been burned, but we aren’t allowed to burn in the city limits. And as I cut her down, bit by bit, I mourned her.

Roses have existed for thousands of years. They scented ancient Persian gardens and adorned the hair of Roman maidens. Their oils formed the perfume called Attar of Roses and have been the base of many other fragrances. Their petals were strewn before the chariots of triumphant Roman generals and down the aisles toward bridal altars. Roses symbolize love. The Tudors carved them into architectural motifs, and during the War of the Roses one faction sported the red Tudor rose and the other sported the white Lancaster rose. Roses have grown wild and tough and stalwart in old western homesteads, blooming at the broken steps of little farm houses long since crumbled or abandoned. They have grown from cuttings snipped by elderly women and passed along to granddaughters. They have rambled over fences, climbed archways, sprawled over doorways, and graced the White House gardens.

So why are they dying now? Why have we created horticultural messes with our gene splicing and hybridizations? What mite, what rodent, what gene manipulation is responsible? Is it transmitted via an animal? Is it airborne? I can’t bear to read about the latest discoveries because the disease breaks my heart.

In past years, I found effective stress relief from my day job by walking through my rose garden and dead-heading the spent blooms. These days, I let a lovely, nameless little rose given to me for my birthday swell its spent buds into rosehips, thereby blooming only once for the season, all because I can’t bring myself to walk among my plants with a bottle of rubbing alcohol to sterilize my pruners and avoid spreading disease from one plant to another.

In search of easy care, hybridizers created Knockout roses. No dead-heading needed, but then why walk among them? They need no care. They have no scent. Yes, Knockouts are pretty. They serve their landscaping purpose, gracing the borders of parking lots and filling corners of our yards as blooming shrubs. However, could Shakespeare have penned his immortal line about a scentless modern rose? I grow a few Knockouts, but can a scentless rose beguile the senses the way an old Bourbon or Damask rose can?

Am I to be the generation that sees the extinction of roses? Or will they prevail, the tough ones that aren’t hybrids, that aren’t grafted wimpy things that last for one season and die? We humans are modern. We are busy. We are tech-savvy, yet our super-wheat creates celiac disease and obesity, and our roses and bees are dying.

What does that tell us? Or are we too busy to pay attention? The trend du jour is to eat paleo, yet how many cavemen actually ate cupcakes made from almond flour? (We are kidding ourselves and ignoring too many warning signs of looming agricultural disaster.)

All these gloomy topics floated through my thoughts as I chopped and cut. In gardening, you know some plants will never thrive from the day you plant them. If they don’t solve the problem by dying, then they have to go. You know that some plants reach their natural end and have to go. You know that some plants bloom in peculiar, new, garish colors that surprise you–not in a good way–and they have to go.

As I cut old Linda down, I saw that I had been right to tackle this sad task now and not try to prolong her agony. For the tiny new cane sprouting from her very base was deformed. I have loved her, and I loved her today in putting her down.

All that remains is to dig up her roots. It will be a tough, difficult job–perhaps beyond my strength now–yet I will get it done.

IMG_1372{A sad ending to a great old lady.}

And will her disease spread to the other roses in the front bed? Who knows? The first plant to succumb in my backyard–a lovely old rose variety called Penelope–was yanked out and a replacement planted a scant foot away from her hole. And after a few years, the newer bush has shown no signs of the disease whatsoever. No other roses in that bed have contracted the virus. So maybe–fingers crossed–old Linda’s companions in the front bed will escape.

Ready or not, happily or not, the front bed is already being reconfigured.

IMG_1370{Spent blooms from another, lesser Linda Campbell rugosa unaffected as yet.}

IMG_1145

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A Sad Farewell to Linda

This post is not about writing. I performed a mercy killing today. I didn’t want to. I’ve put off the task for over a year. I kept telling myself, She’s not so bad. As long as she’s still blooming I can trim off the infected parts and keep her going.

Yes, I’m writing today about a rose bush named Linda Campbell. You may be thinking, how silly! Bushes die all the time. It’s the way gardening goes.

Of course it is. Gardeners know that plants have their seasons. They live their span and they die. Or they’re planted in the wrong spot, and they fail to thrive. Some die instantly, getting the mistake over with. Others linger on and on–struggling and yellow, scraggly and sick–until finally you yank them out. Still others fall prey to insects that munch them, strip them, and riddle them into unsightly specimens you’re ashamed to own. Varmints don’t help. I’ll never forget happily planting marigolds in a very tall raised bed, and finding them eaten and gone the next morning by some mystery phantom that came in the night.

But Linda Campbell didn’t deserve her death. She wasn’t planted in the wrong spot. She didn’t succumb to Blackspot or an infestation of Japanese beetles or aphids or a gnawing rabbit. I’d owned her for many years at my previous home, growing her in a huge pot, and she did just fine although no rose truly enjoys living in a pot. I brought her and her sisters (two other Linda Campbells) with me to this home. I planted her at the southwest corner for maximum sunshine. She and one of her sisters bracketed my office window.
Linda healthy bush

The Linda Campbell rose is a rugosa, a hardy shrub variety that’s tough as nails, blooms constantly in huge red clusters, sheds its spent blossoms so that no dead-heading is required, resists disease, and grows into a massive shrub. Give her room and leave her alone, and she will reward you with a summer-long show of color. Any time I come across her at a nursery, I tend to snap her up and find room for her somewhere.

The villain in this lament is a rose virus–Rose Rosette Virus (RRV)–that’s reaching perniciously into more and more gardens and backyards. Horticultural references say it’s spread by a mite, and the blame has been assigned to wild multi-flora roses growing in nature.

Or did it come about from breeding easy-care roses? Rumors and misinformation abound. All I know is that RRV is getting worse, that the new landscaping trend of planting Knockout roses very close together is allowing the mite to spread the disease more quickly, and that once a plant is infected there’s no hope and no cure.

The rose virus wiped out my favorite rose nursery in California several years ago. That’s where I used to order antique varieties, the roses grown by the ancient Romans and the Tudors.

I’d heard about the virus. A friend of mine has been issuing warnings about it for years in her blog reddirtramblings.com, but I’d never encountered RRV until I moved to this house. I brought my roses with me, of course. I always move my roses along with my furniture. One bush, a variety called Penelope that covers herself with the loveliest creamy white blossoms, had been growing in a pot in my previous backyard. Here, at the new place, my backyard featured a long raised bed with in-ground sprinklers, so I put Penelope in the ground and looked forward to seeing her explode happily in size and bloom.

Instead, she immediately contracted the rose virus. Up grew the distinctive “witches’ broom” deformed canes and leaves. I consulted my gardening expert friend, who confirmed the worst. I dug out Penelope and disposed of her.

Everything seemed fine. But then, a year or so later, one of my Linda Campbells in the front of the house sent up a small witches’ broom. I couldn’t believe it. She was–as I’ve already mentioned–a transplant from my former house. I couldn’t believe RRV had struck me twice. I hadn’t been buying new bushes, bringing in contaminated roses from nurseries. But it struck this Linda just the same.

If mites are the carriers, why this bush and not the one next to her? If mites are the carriers, why the Penelope in the backyard when nothing back there has been affected since?

Linda sick leaves
I cut off the affected canes and disposed of them responsibly. (Never put an infected rose into your community’s compost!) I disinfected my pruners, and hoped for the best.

Months went by, and Linda looked okay. I lived in hope and denial. She would send out a couple of witches’ brooms a year, usually in the fall, and that would be it. In the back of my mind, I worried about whether delaying was risking the others, but I couldn’t bring myself to kill her.

Until today. The Polar Vortex arrived, bringing unbelievably pleasant temperatures here to the mid-July prairie. This summer, sick Linda has been sending up more and more deformed canes. She’s tried, pathetically, to bloom and couldn’t. It was time to let her go.
Linda weapons

So I strapped on my back brace and got out my tools for the grim execution. Today is trash pickup day on my street. I had to bag her up and put her in the regular landfill, and I didn’t want her lingering on the curb, possibly spreading the virus to anyone else. The best way to dispose of an infected bush is to burn it, but my city prohibits that, so this was the best I could do.

As I chopped her down and dug her up, I felt anger at whatever’s responsible for this horticultural Frankenstein’s monster. Do I believe that nature has caused this plague? Not entirely. Do I need to read more about RRV? Probably.

Given the chance to choose, however, between what mankind fumbles and nature tries to correct–and given the fact that roses have existed for thousands of years in lovely manifestations of bloom and fragrance–I have to side with suspicion and doubt. The mite may transmit the disease, but I don’t think the cause comes from nature.

So I’m angry. When, I asked myself with every shovelful of dirt, did we decide that roses putting on one annual show of blooms weren’t good enough? When did we decide that they had to have a certain form so we could exhibit them at flower competitions? When did we decide that dead-heading was too much trouble? When did we decide that we’d rather have constant blooms instead of fragrance?

Isn’t fragrance the whole point of a rose?
Linda sick bloom

Perhaps you’re thinking, too bad–so sad–it’s just a rose. Plant another and get over it.

But you see, I can’t plant another rose bush where Linda was. If I could simply yank her out and replace her, I’d be mildly annoyed but okay. In all the years I’ve grown roses, I’ve seen many of them die in this hot, drought-ridden prairie climate.

The trouble with the rose virus is that the roots are infected, too. Unless I can eradicate every piece of root from my flowerbed, no other rose can go in there. And if she sprouts anew from a piece of root–like the undead in a horror film, she’ll have to be executed all over again because she’ll still carry the plague.

Linda sad bush

I knew, when I began today’s task, that I’d never get the roots out. Roses take about three years to settle in and fully establish their root systems. The modern spindly, delicate hybrid tea roses–the ones that produce those lovely, long-stemmed blooms so perfect for formal bouquets–tend to die after one season here and have tiny little root systems because they never become well established. But the shrubs, ramblers, rugosas, and even the sturdy hybrid teas that live on and thrive–all develop generous deep root systems, sometimes nearly as large as the bush.

So today, although I wanted to remove every bit of root, I couldn’t do it without excavating the entire bed and destroying the perennials under-planted beneath the roses. I dug and dug, but eventually I had to cut the long feeder roots and leave them in the ground.

Linda chopped

Linda RIP

Now the symmetry is gone. Will the other rose in this bed succumb next? I don’t know. What will I plant in Linda’s place? Daylilies? Monarda to attract the butterflies? I don’t know. Right now, I’m too disgusted to decide. Because I want Linda there, or at least some lovely rose there, and the virus means I can’t. The virus has taken a little bit of natural beauty from my life.

Linda sister

RIP, Linda Campbell. Today, as I dug you up, the skies wept for you with gentle rain.

Linda healthy bush

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Digging Holes

The cool spring weather of last week had me busy planting roses, pulling weeds, chopping down overgrown shrubs, doing battle with a briar overtaking my backyard flowerbed, and shifting daylilies and iris to new locations. I haven’t dug any holes in a year. It was last Memorial Day weekend when I injured my back and was ordered to move as little as possible for most of Summer 2013.

Yet finally, improved health and this lovely spring weather (so rare here on the prairie) have combined to rekindle my love of gardening.

While I was cautiously digging holes–tentatively at first, then with increased confidence–something wonderful happened. Hot and snagged by established, overgrown roses, I dug to the correct depth and width for nursery-potted rosebushes. I was slow and out of practice. Strapped in a back-brace, I was afraid I would undo months of slow-mending, yet everything held together. And during this slow, steady physical labor, I reconnected with the special mind-zone that’s generated by doing mundane chores.

Why are simple, repetitive tasks so conducive to creativity? Why does digging a hole or raking leaves or sweeping floors unchain our imaginations?

No doubt the psychologists have fancy terms for this effect. All I know is that it works.

When I was in high school–dreaming every day of becoming a published novelist–I would be roused early by my father and sent outdoors to exercise my horse. An empty lot adjacent to our house provided me with space enough to ride in a large circle–roughly the size of a small horse-show arena. Because I competed with my horse–strictly in a small, local show circuit–it was necessary to put him through his gaits and keep him in training. And while I loved to ride, it was boring going around and around that circle.

Yet my mind was free to roam as far as my imagination would take me. I plotted many stories during those morning rides. I plotted more stories while I folded laundry or scrubbed out the bathtub or groomed my horse or mucked out his stall.

There’s a famous quote from Agatha Christie about how the best time to plot stories is while doing the dishes. I’ve done that, too, in the days when my house lacked a dishwasher.

In our busy modern lives, however, we lack enough boredom–the kind that supports plotting and designing characters. There’s so much to do now. Such a barrage of multi-tasking, decisions, social media, and work responsibilities … so many types of entertainment–often inside our phones for the easiest, most convenient availability.

Tell me, when you’re sitting at your mechanic’s, waiting for an oil change, can you leave your phone in your pocket? My car dealership is so fancy that it features several huge televisions, a café, and a gift shop to keep customers happy while waiting. But if I watch Judge Judy or Rachel Ray, when can I think about my book?

As writers, we need to guard against watching TV on our phones or surfing through hundreds of channels on cable when we have nothing else to do. I’m not opposed to either of those forms of entertainment. I’m just saying that as writers, we need to be bored … and often.

Otherwise, when are we going to devise that next plot twist or mull over a scene we just finished typing? When do we have those windows of time where nothing is really happening?

We need that space, those spans of nothing going on, so that our characters can speak and dance and argue, sending us running to our keyboards to write.

I’m no dazzling housekeeper, and while I love to plant flowers I loathe weeding. I hire a man to mow my grass these days, and I dream often of hiring a cleaning service.

Yet, if I acquire such luxuries, or even if I rely on a Roomba to whisper along my floors, when will I plot?

At the keyboard, you may suggest.

No! Not then. The keyboard represents writing time, precious time that should be spent writing what’s already been planned out mentally.

And if I have to buy eleven new rose bushes just to dig enough holes to work out my new plotline, then it’s money well spent.

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A Rose Reborn …

Earlier this summer I watched in dismay as bagworms stripped my Pinata roses to skeletons.  I got someone to spray — no luck; wrong time of year.  I picked worms by hand — no luck; the infestation was too severe.  These had been such gorgeous bushes.  I mourned them, certain they could not survive.

Yet they have.  Look!

Although this bloom is gold, the climbing rosebush Pinata will also bloom in shades of red and coral.

Presently this is the larger of the pair. She didn't undergo as much damage and pruning.

The fall flush is coming on.  And despite this brutal summer of high heat, humidity, and pests, Pinata has hung in there.  I guess there’s a life lesson in there, right?

This bush suffered the worst devastation, yet is happy now.

I just had to share.

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