Archive for the ‘Gardens and Gardening’ Category

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.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »


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.





Read Full Post »

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?

Read Full Post »

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!


Read Full Post »

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!

Read Full Post »

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).

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Almost as soon as I expressed an interest in gardening books, blog reader Margaret Powling recommended that I try The Laskett by Roy Strong.  Thank goodness she did as otherwise I would probably never have come across this wonderful chronicle of how Strong and his wife, designer Julia Trevelyan Oman, created The Laskett, “the largest formal garden created in Britain since the war.”  It has not only become one of my favourite gardening books – and probably the most inspirational of the ones I’ve read so far – but also one of my favourite books of 2012.

Part of what makes this book so incredibly fascinating are the plentiful photos included in it.  It is wonderful to actually see the garden progress over the years, from the bare fields that were there in the mid-1970s when Strong and his wife purchased a very ordinary early Victorian house set on four acres in Herefordshire, to the established, rather eccentric garden of the early 2000s.

Another huge part of the book’s appeal is the level of detail Strong happily goes into.  I loved how specific he was.  I need details (the more minute the better) and Strong provides them, getting into the particulars about cost and labour.  As a reader, it is very easy to win my affection: all you need do is disclose your finances to me.  Works every time.  As both Strong and his wife were devoted to a poorly paid field (the arts), The Laskett was created on a shoestring budget, with many cutting and plants donated from friends.  It was fascinating (but also a tad frustrating) to read how many trees could be purchased in the 1970s for less than £20 and equally intriguing to find out just how little cash there was to work with, Strong having received a paltry salary at the V&A (where he was the first director without a private income).  His portrait of 1970s, pre-Thatcher Britain is bleak and the creation of The Laskett, begun in the mid-1970s, was his escape from an ever-more worrying world that seemed on the brink of collapse:

I was fully conscious from the outset that The Laskett garden was a child of its time, the middle of the seventies.  When I talk to groups I am about to escort around the garden I always evoke those years on the backcloth to the making of The Laskett garden.  In front of me I often see nothing but a sea of bewildered faces, as though gardening was a world apart from reality.  I remind them how in January 1974 I went to the Victoria & Albert Museum and began my directorship in the midst of the three-day week, with the miners on strike and the imminent collapse of the Heath government.  My secretary and I sat and worked by candlelight, for government had decreed that the lights be turned off.  This was the prelude to over five years of social turmoil until, after the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1979, a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher came to power.  Even then it was not until the middle of the eighties that anything remotely resembling stability and economic prosperity returned.

Strong writes so engagingly about the creation of the garden, sharing all number of personal stories about his inspiration and adventures while making it, that you can’t help but warm to him.  I did finish the book a tad envious of his diverse circle of friends, many of whom are paid tribute to in the garden.  He and Julia had such an amazing group of gardening-inclined friends and acquaintances to draw inspiration from.  I started taking down names as I read, eager to learn more about these people if I could.  Some are well-known (Cecil Beaton and Rosemary Verey, for instance) while others sounded vaguely normal but terribly fascinating (like George Clive), the kind of people who no doubt gain mentions in all sorts of books written by their friends but who will never be the focus of one themselves.  The best thing about reading memoirs (which is essentially what this is) by interesting people is how many other interesting people they know and are able to ‘introduce’ you to.

I think Strong may have also inspired a passion in me for formal garden design, which, given the spaces I’m likely to have available in my city-dwelling lifetime, is inconvenient.  Where am I going to have the chance to indulge a passion for topiary, or even the chance to create garden ‘rooms’?  His passion for structure, for trees and hedges creating walls and canopies, was intoxicating: 

Hedges to most people are a burden.  To me they are a joy.  If I had to simplify The Laskett garden I would indeed sweep away everything and leave just the hedges and topiary.  They endow the garden with its romance and mystery, evidence too that garden is as much about placing human beings in space as are architecture and theatre design.  It is not for nothing that I sometimes like to shock an audience by saying to them, ‘Remember, flowers are a sign of failure in a garden,’ a remark that is always guaranteed to produce a reaction. 

Who needs flowers indeed!  Me, I would have said before I read this, but Strong has converted me (except for my beloved blubs – I could never give those up). 

I think what I loved most about The Laskett is how individual it is.  Strong was inspired by others but this is identifiably his garden, telling his and Julia’s story.  It may not gain the approval of professional garden designers, may not follow the ‘rules’ gardeners are supposed to abide by, but it is wonderfully them, from the garish paint choices to the unexpected (and abundant) statues.  It chronicles episodes in Strong’s life, pays tribute to friends and family, and celebrates both his and Julia’s professional achievements.  There’s a Shakespeare Monument, erected after Strong won the Shakespeare Prize from the FVS Foundation of Hamburg, the V&A Museum Temple (Strong spent 14 years there as director), the Nutcracker Garden (one of the ballets Julia designed for) and the Elizabeth Tudor Avenue (named in memory of a book Strong wrote about her, the proceeds from which helped finance the planting).  The garden is truly Strong’s masterpiece:

The Laskett garden was never to me anything other than a work of art in the making, one that called for vision, the exercise of the eye, the application of taste, discipline, patience, craft and knowledge over a sustained period of time to conjure up an unforgettable experience through the time-honoured application of art to nature.  It was always viewed with that higher vision in mind, one of a kind I learnt about through studying garden history.  There I read that any great garden was not only an arrangement of plants and artifacts in terms of design and composition but also a tissue of allusions and ideas.  In our case to wander in The Laskett garden was a journey of associations.  On a superficial level the garden sets out to delight and surprise but, on a deeper one, for us the resonances have always been far more complex.

It took decades to develop the garden to the impressive state it was in when the book was published in 2003, restricted by time and money, but the garden is truly a reflection of the gardener, of Strong’s personality and influences.  Every garden should be this unique, should have its own identity, complete with a memory and sense of humour.  It is an art, garden designing, and really does offer you the scope for wit and whimsy, drama and tribute.  But few, I think, recognize that and are truly able to make as much of their gardens as Strong.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »