Archive for the ‘Gardens and Gardening’ Category

After travelling to Germany in 1937, Walter Fish, a retired editor of the Daily Mail newspaper, returned to England convinced that war was coming.  His response was to find a home in the countryside for himself and his wife.  They’d planned to find something turn-key with a ready-made garden.  Instead they ended up buying “a poor battered old house that had to be gutted to be liveable, and wilderness instead of a garden”.  Almost twenty years later, in 1956, Walter’s wife looked back and chronicled what they did with their two acre plot in the classic gardening book We Made a Garden by Margery Fish.

Margery was in her mid-forties when they bought the house and Walter almost twenty years older.  They had married in 1933 after working together at the Daily Mail and while Walter had had gardens of his own in his previous homes, this was the first one Margery had ever been involved with.  In fact, surrounded by gardening-minded relatives, she’d been quite scornful of their pastime in earlier years:

I have always felt my family have been very forbearing towards me.  Before I was married I didn’t do anything in the garden.  Every weekend, when my sisters were navvying to make a garden round the little house we built, I sailed off on my bicycle to play golf.  And I never stopped saying the most scathing things about gardeners, what fools they were always to be working and never enjoying their gardens, and what was the good of having a lovely garden if you never had time to sit in it and enjoy it? […] I often wonder why some zealous gardening relation did not slay me with fork and spade in my unenlightened years.

Now with a space of her own, Margery threw herself wholeheartedly into the making of a cottage garden, making up in enthusiasm and energy what she lacked in knowledge.  With Walter also interested in the garden, she realised quickly that to make her mark on the space she would need to move quickly – before he could impose his own vision on the garden:

We all know the saying about fools.  When I think of it now I wonder how I had the hardihood to attempt such an ambitious scheme.  I had never done any gardening before we went to Somerset and had certainly never even thought about garden design.  It might have been the most abysmal failure, but I didn’t think about that.  My only thought was to get the project under way before Walter took an interest in what I was doing and complicated matters with too much criticism and advice.

Margery leads the reader through the garden, recalling how they handled different areas and challenges.  I particularly loved hearing about the areas where they failed or struggled – it’s always heartening to know this doesn’t just happen to you.  Margery was led by enthusiasm in the early years and sometimes, as with the stone garden, that led her to plantings that she’d regret:

I was instructed to plant what I could between the stones, to relieve the hard angular lines.  At that time it was literally a case of making bricks with straw as I had practically nothing to use.  Looking round the garden I came upon some stonecrop and pounced on it as an answer to prayers.  There wasn’t very much and I broke it into small pieces and poked them between the stones.  I had no idea that when it settles down in a place it not only starts raising a family but goes in for founding a dynasty as well. […] Sometimes in the summer my heart softens when I see its really pretty flat pink rosettes, but most of the time it is war. […] If, by an oversight, it is allowed to stay on a piece of a flower bed for more than a minute, in two minutes that flower bed will be a solid mat of stonecrop of a particularly luxuriant quality.  Every year I pull out barrowloads of it and I know I shall continue to do so until I die.

There were lucky successes, plenty of failures, and lots of marital conflict as Walter’s strong opinions (on watering, on certain plants, on caring for the drive, and on and on and on) had to be taken into account.  Walter died in 1947 and while Margery remembers him fondly throughout the book and his influence helped make her the gardener she became, she also obviously enjoyed the freedom she had after his death to shape the garden according only to her own ideas.  They started the garden as a “we” but Walter was a fair-weather gardener and it clearly became Margery’s main interest as time went on, a topic of which she never tired:

I could go on and on.  But that is just what gardening is, going on and on.  My philistine of a husband often told with amusement how a cousin when asked when he expected to finish his garden replied ‘Never, I hope.’ And that, I think, applies to all true gardeners.

I found this slim volume delightful.  Margery is an excellent and entertaining writer, full of informative gardening details but also a cheerful sense of humour.  So much of her has been poured into the garden and into the book that it’s easy to understand why it has stood the test of time and remains a classic.  Her garden has also survived and can still be visited today.  If I’m ever in Somerset, I’ll be sure to stop by East Lambrook Manor Gardens and see it for myself.

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It’s a lazy, rainy Sunday here – so welcome in the middle of hot summer – and it seems like the perfect time to sit down and share some photos of the lazy, rainy time I spent visiting Giverny back in May.

Monet’s gardens at Giverny are world-famous and well-loved, welcoming more than 500,000 visitors each year.  Within day-trip distance of Paris, the tiny village of Giverny explodes during the day as tourist arrive, filling the gardens and the village with garden-lovers from all over the world, only to contract again in the evening to a sleepy place where only two restaurants are open.

I started my trip this year in Giverny, going there directly after landing in Paris (where I connected with my mother who had started her trip a week earlier in the Czech Republic).  Staying at a cosy B&B within the village, I got to relax in its quiet bird-filled garden and stretch my legs after a long travel day by walking the path between Giverny and the nearby town of Vernon.  After airports and airplanes, it was such a relief to walk through fields and be surrounded by flowers, fresh air, and, delightfully, cows.  Then it was back to the B&B to laze in the garden until dinner and read Mad Enchantment, Ross King’s excellent history of Monet’s paintings of the water lilies.  I love being able to match my reading to my holiday destination and this was the perfect choice.  Reading about Giverny and Monet’s life there added so much to my experience of the village and the house and gardens.  Stopping to see the family grave in the small cemetery, all the names of his family members meant so much more to me because of what I learned about them in the book.

The next morning, with our pre-purchased tickets in hard, we showed up at the gardens right at opening time.  We strolled around the water garden (devoid of water lilies in mid-May), posed on the wisteria-laden Japanese bridge for the ubiquitous photos, and enjoyed the general calm of the gardens before too many others arrived.

We then made our way to the gardens surrounding the house, where row upon row of irises were in full bloom.  There was a light mist of rain that morning, which made the vivid blues and purples of the irises stand out more than they would have in full sun.  Iris are one of my favourite flowers so, for me, this was absolutely the perfect time to have visited the gardens.

After spending the bulk of the morning in the gardens, we visited Giverny’s small but well-curated Impressionist Museum, strolled about the village, and spent another lazy afternoon back in the B&B’s garden.  I absolutely loved staying in Giverny for two nights and not having to rush about like the many day trippers we saw visiting, who seemed too worried about catching their buses and making it to their next destination to enjoy the many small charms of the village.  It was such a pleasure to be able to see everything in a relaxed manner, especially after so many years of looking forward to visiting. And it set the laid-back tone for the rest of our time in France, when we left the following morning for the stunning Brittany coast.

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The Virago Book of Women GardenersIt is a long weekend here and I’ve spent the past two days trying to convince myself to sit down and write this post.  That proved an impossible task on Saturday and Sunday, both beautiful days, but today it is raining, offering me the perfect opportunity to come inside and write.  And The Virago Book of Women Gardeners edited by Deborah Kellaway is the perfect book to write about this weekend, since everywhere I’ve looked the past few days I’ve seen people energetically doing battle in their gardens, getting them ready for summer.

The Virago Book of Women Gardeners is a compendium of garden writing by women from the 17th Century to the end of the 20th.  Some of the women were gardeners first and foremost (Rosemary Verey, Gertrude Jekyll, Margery Fish), others were writers who dabbled in their gardens (Sylvia Plath, Edith Wharton, Colette), and a number were people who I had never heard of before.  Together, their writings form a delightful, fun, and inspiring book.  It made me dream desperately of gardens I will never have and encouraged me to do the best for the meager garden I do enjoy.

Kellaway divides the book into thematic sections, a technique that works very well given how broad the book’s focus is.  I enjoyed all the sections (except, perhaps, for the section on “Flower Arrangers”, who do not belong among gardeners, in my opinion) but I had my favourites.  These were: “Visitors and Travellers”, “Advisers and Designers”, “Colourists”, and “Townswomen”.   And I had my favourite writers, too.  While some of the authors only had one excerpt in the book, others appeared time and again.  These were generally exactly who you would expect them to be: Ursula Buchan, Anna Pavord, Vita Sackville-West, Rosemary Verey, Elizabeth von Arnim and, of course, Gertrude Jekyll.  Jekyll’s writing feels so fresh and engaging, so modern and relaxed, that it is almost jarring to realise how long ago she was writing.  One of the other delights of this book was being introduces to one of Jekyll’s neighbours and contemporaries, Mrs. C.W. Earle.  Mrs. Earle wrote a number of bestselling books, starting in 1897 with Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden, that were largely about gardening but appear to have wandered on to whatever topic struck their author’s fancy.  I came away from this book with a long list of other books to read – Mrs Earle’s books are at the very top.

Utrecht, 2012

Utrecht, 2012

On first going into a garden one knows by instinct, as a hound scents the fox, if it is going to be interesting or not. 

– Mrs. C.W. Earle, 1897

Freiburg im Breisgau, 2012

Freiburg im Breisgau, 2012

Weeds have a particular fascination for us.  They are endlessly interesting, like an enemy who occupies our thoughts and schemes so much more than any friend and who (though we would never admit it) we should miss if he suddenly moved away.  I know the weeds in my garden better than most of my flowers and, without them, my victories would be insipid affairs.  Weeds provide the challenge that most gardeners require.  They may sometimes appear to us as ineradicable as Original Sin, but we would be sorry to have to admit that, like sin, we were not conscious of a strong urge to overcome them.

-Ursula Buchan, 1987

Victoria, 2011

Victoria, 2011

…the Dahlia’s first duty in life is to flaunt and to swagger and to carry gorgeous blooms well above its leaves, and on no account to hang its head. 
– Gertrude Jekyll, 1899

Vancouver, 2012

Vancouver, 2012

Why should fast growth automatically be an advantage, I wonder?  Instant gardening is no more satisfying to the soul than thirty-second snatches of Mozart, condensed novels, or fast food. 
– Anna Pavord, 1992

Vancouver, 2013

Vancouver, 2013

Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination.  You are always living three, or indeed six, months hence.  I believe that people entirely devoid of imagination never can be really good gardeners.  To be content with the present, and not striving about the future, is fatal. 
– Mrs. C.W. Earle, 1897

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I woke up this morning thinking “yes, today I will finally blog about one of the many, many books I’ve read recently.” I really did have the best of intentions, planning to talk about The Bannister Girls by Jean Saunders, a light romance from Bloomsbury Reader which I sped through Thursday morning about the lives of three sisters during the First World War, but then I got a better offer: to take advantage of the rain-free morning (a rarity this week) and go tour the local botanical gardens.  So, instead of a review, here are a few photos:

P1060722 P1060730 P1060739

I may (still) not be reviewing but I am reading.  Right now, I’m in the midst of Inside the Kingdom by Robert Lacey, a profile of Saudi Arabia from the 1970s to the present, and Betsy and the Great World by Maud Hart Lovelace, in which twenty-one year old Betsy leaves Minnesota in early 1914 to tour Europe.  I am loving the Lacey so far and, when I need a break, Betsy is a most entertaining distraction, although the frequent descriptions of her outfits are driving me slightly mad.  (These sartorial details were also a distraction for me in the only other Maud Hart Lovelace book I’ve read, Emily of Deep Valley.)  Betsy, bless her, has some truly horrific sounding outfits in the most garish colours.

Tonight I’m off to the theatre but I really (honestly!) will spend some of this weekend working on reviews.

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Yesterday morning, it was pouring rain.  By the afternoon, with the help of a swift breeze, all that was coming down from the clear blue skies were cherry tree blossoms.  I love April.





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After an exhausting weekend, I wish I could just collapse into one of those garden chairs in the park for the next week or so and just sit still.  Why are weekends, particularly in summer, always too short?

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June here has been full of grey skies and lots of rain.  To be fair, it has been relatively warm but that’s about it.  When I was volunteering at the botanical gardens this week, there was a brief period where the sun (almost) burst out and I dashed about taking photos.  The weather might be depressing but the flowers are certainly bright and cheerful this time of year!


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The weather here continues to be bizarrely wonderful and incredibly distracting for those of us who feel like they should be writing book reviews.  Vancouver is not a city renowned for sunshine.  It’s wonderful when it comes but always a surprise, making everyone a little giddy and irresponsible.  The default weather is rain so when it is sunny, you make the most of it.  You go outside, you garden, you break out the barbeque, you hang out in the park, you relax on the beach, you spend afternoons drinking on restaurant patios – all the usual sunshine-inspired activities.  And then when the rain comes back, you feel like you made the most of the sun and look forward to its next appearance.  Well, I have definitely been making most of the sun (including hanging my sheets out on the line this morning – is there anything that smells better than sun-dried sheets?) and in lieu of a proper bookish post (hopefully I’ll manage one soon) I thought I’d share some photos from this weekend.

On Friday, I was out at the University of British Columbia picking up books from a couple of its libraries.  I like UBC best during the summer, when the bulk of the students are gone and, despite the construction projects everywhere, it is relatively quiet.  It is fun being on a university campus again and it is hard to think of another school that can offer such stunning views of the ocean and snow-capped mountains:

On Saturday, my mom and I visited the local botanical garden.  I’ve recently started volunteering there, working in the visitor’s centre, and I’m having a lot of fun.  The other volunteers are very knowledgeable and spend a lot of time talking about their own gardens so I’m learning a great deal from them.  And it is just fun to deal with people again in a customer-facing role, especially since I only have to do it twice a month.  Dealing with customers all day long, week after week is exhausting but a couple of times a month is just perfect.  And it is a wonderful change from the solitude of working at home.  Most of all, I love going out to walk around the garden after my shift and see what’s in bloom.  Expect to see a lot of garden photos this summer as I always go with my camera.

Well, that’s about it.  I’m hoping to get a bit of reading in this afternoon – it has been a remarkably book-free weekend so far – and then maybe even work on a couple of book reviews so I have something to post this week.  Maybe.  Hope you are having or, depending on your time zone, had a lovely weekend!

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I just keep reading one wonderful gardening book after the other.  A Gentle Plea for Chaos by Mirabel Osler is a thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining collection of pieces on various garden-related subjects and it made for the perfect bedtime reading.  I enjoyed it so much that I tried to stretch my reading of it out as long as I could, savouring it in little 10 or 20 page bursts.  Osler is delightfully opinionated and her writing is energetic, filled with far from gentle ruminations on her experiences in the garden.

Osler talks about her own garden (a sprawling, untidy, ever-changing place that sounds quite enchanting) but most of the focus is on the experience of gardening.  She considers the feelings it provokes, from bliss to guilt; the endless quest for inspiration; and some of the many ways in which people approach it.  As the title suggests, Osler favours whimsy rather than regimentation.  She has little sympathy for that kind of gardener:

The very soul of a garden is shrivelled by zealous regimentation.  Off with their heads go the ferns, lady’s mantles or cranesbill.  A mania for neatness, a lust for conformity – and away go atmosphere and sensuality.  What is left?  Earth between plants: the dread tedium of clumps of colour with earth in between.  So the garden is reduced to merely a place of plants.  Step – one, two.  Stop – one, two.  Look down (no need ever to look up, for there is no mystery ahead to draw you on), look down at each plant.  Individually each is sublime, undoubtedly.  For a plantsman this is heaven.  But where is lure?  And where, alas, is seduction and gooseflesh on the arms?

Osler seems to have a very set idea of what ‘real gardeners’ think and do and it is not necessarily a complimentary impression.  The beliefs of the ‘real gardener’ seem to be entirely contrary to Osler’s ones and, unsurprisingly, she is confident in her status as an enthusiastic amateur.  She really does not want to know what the ‘real gardeners’ think she should be doing.  She knows what she wants to do and by God that is what she is going to do!

Real gardeners will say with a glittering eye and a surfeit of energy on some golden October or sombre November day, ‘Isn’t this perfect for being out in the garden?’  Is it?  I haven’t the faintest idea what I should be doing out there.  I don’t want to know.  For myself I’m already facing the other way; my sights are fixed on everything splendid there is to be done that has nothing whatsoever to do with gardens.  The garden should be sighing and settling itself unaided into contented slumber.  It is the season of sleep, of torpor, or a lack of sap and fecundity.  It doesn’t need me, surely?

I think it was Osler’s reflections on the winter dreams of gardeners, coming right at the beginning of the book, that so firmly pulled me in:

I imagine up and down the country during these blessed months of short days and long nights, a whole self-seeding of gardeners, with backs unbent, having put aside their boots, trowels and twine, who can now have time to let their thoughts hang out: a time when everything is possible.  Who doesn’t make lists then?  Heady, wild and totally outrageous ideas can be brought into line, maybe only momentarily, before they are banished as unrealistic.  It is the season for minds sharp as blades – agile and springing from one extravagant thought to another.

I love that last phrase: “minds sharp as blades…springing from one extravagant thought to another.”  That is certainly what happened to me this winter and goodness knows that none of my impractical fantasies will ever see the light of day but they were fun to spin.

I loved how random yet consistently fascinating these pieces were.  One of the things I in my ignorance love most about gardening books is when an author calls on all sorts of reference materials that I can then eagerly note down for future reading.  Osler, I’m glad to say, peppers the book with the names of authors, famous gardeners, her favourite gardening books, and of course the Latin names of plants I have never heard of it.  I took copious notes and that made me very happy.  I will not lack for reading material next winter that is for certain!

This is emphatically not a book to guide you through what to do in the garden but a plea to do whatever it is you want, rules be damned. The results may be chaotic and you’ll make mistakes (Osler is very up-front about hers) but it will be something uniquely and beautifully yours.  Perfection is never the goal but enchantment and happiness certainly are.

Osler manages to be funny and sharp throughout the book but the writing retains a beautiful, almost lyrical quality that I adored.  She is so full of life and confidence and enthusiasm that I was completely enthralled.  It was quite perfect.   I cannot wait to read her other books (A Breath from Elsewhere and The Rain Tree).

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Happy Easter!  Whether you’re participating in religious celebrations today or, like me, just enjoying the long weekend, I hope you’re having a wonderful time.

This was going to be my lazy, do-absolutely-nothing weekend but Friday and Saturday ended up being surprisingly busy so I must attempt to cram all the laziness I can into today.  My only goals for the day are to watch “Wives and Daughters”, my favourite television miniseries and one I haven’t watched in far too long, to bake a cake, and to read.  It is going to be a good day.

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