Happy New Year

Lake house, December 29th, 2009

It's So Peaceful In The Country. Sung by Mildred Bailey (1907-1951), one of my favorite singers.

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Amaryllis (1910) by Piet Mondrian, Watercolor on paper, 39 x 49 cm (15 3/8 x 19 3/8 in), Private collection

Red Amaryllis with Blue Background. (c. 1907) by Piet Mondrian, Watercolor on paper, 18 3/8 x 13" (46.5 x 33 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection

"It was Sebastian's idea. Part of his life-long war against the herbaceous border"


The recent well-reviewed production of A Streetcar Named Desire at BAM (I didn't make it, sigh) reminded me of another Tennessee William's play, Suddenly Last Summer. This is perhaps his most garden-y work, though it's not really about gardening at all. In its movie form, with a screenplay by Gore Vidal and starring Katharine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, it is indeed gay, gay, gay. In fact, even in the watered down 1958 screen version, the film is a big, sloppy, overbaked slice of mid-20th century closeted gay life when everything was done with a nudge and a wink. Not like today where the gay folk are so boring, dutifully getting married, raising children and becoming mayors of major American cities (in Texas no less!)

But the film is well worth watching, during these quiet days at the end of the year, despite the heavy subject matter. Its historic camp value and the vivid performances alone recommend it—minus Clift who seems drugged. I include it here primarily for the flamboyantly primordial sets by Oliver Messel (nudge and wink) depicting Mrs. Venable's New Orleans garden. They are "like the dawn of creation," as Hepburn announces. (More shots below)

Batten down the hatches, and if you are sensitive to heavy-handed symbolism and stagey poetic pronouncements then you might want to sit back from the screen since things might get a bit sloshy. I'll just curl up right here next to my Night-Blooming Dementia Praecox and watch it with you.

You can start viewing it from the beginning here. Or rent it from Netflix here or buy it from Amazon here.

Oliver Messel's set design for Suddenly Last Summer

Oliver Messel by George Hoyningen-Huene (1929)

The Christmas tree shakedown

Did you know your Christmas tree may be mechanically shaken to get rid of cute little amphibious hitchhikers? I didn't. This is one of those fun fact stories that will help bridge uncomfortable gaps in conversation at any upcoming family holiday gatherings. Read more about it

Christmas trees showing up with live 'ornaments' (AP)

Sissinghurst after the ghosts have gone to bed

The Lime Walk at Sissinghurst Castle

For the past many weeks, I have been chained (or at least bound with a fragile and only too easily broken string) at my desk trying to meet my book deadline. So I apologize for my infrequent posts. I will have so many great gardens and imagery from my book to show you in 2010.

My book is on sustainable design in the smaller garden. The topic of this post, as you can see, is a grandly famous Kentish garden that is neither small nor probably very sustainable. Sissinghurst comes out of another age. But while searching for some reference for my writing, I came across these photographs I took there several years ago. Thinking they were lost to the digital ether, I was very happy to find them. They so vividly remind me of a wonderful visit, gracious hosts and the interesting things that happened to me during my brief hours there and I wanted to share them with you.

The view through the tower gate

I was working for Domino Magazine at the time (do you remember magazines? weren't they nice?) Deborah, my editor, suggested that while on a London shoot that I should visit Sarah Raven, one of our magazine contributors and friends. Sarah is an author of several wonderful cooking and gardening books and she is married to author Adam Nicolson, the grandson of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West who famously created the gardens there. I was thrilled when Adam and Sarah invited me to stay with them for a night before I went back to New York.

We had a wonderful day. Sarah picked me up at the train station and we went buzzing around buying things to cook together. Adam gave me an evening tour of the fantastic garden, which I had never visited before. Dinner was simple and delicious. I learned that boiled quail eggs rolled in celery salt make a great appetizer. We talked for a long time afterwards in front of an ancient fireplace so huge that Sarah could actually sit under its mantel on a stool. Tired and a little drunk from several whiskies I went up to my bedroom quite late.

The view from my bedroom at dawn

I was awakened in the middle of the night by voices, several loud voices seemingly coming through my open window from the direction of the courtyard. I half-consciously thought they were produced by some deranged family next door and rolled over to sleep. Even Sissinghurst can't pick its neighbors I thought ruefully.

Shortly before sunrise, which came early there around 4:45 am, I heard the shouters again. This time, annoyed, I stumbled out of bed to see who could possibly be so noisy and running around outside at that hour.

Just as I stuck my head out of the window the shouting stopped, almost leaving an echo to bounce between the various buildings. I was trying to imagine what I had heard. It sounded so realistic, like two or three people hailing each other between distant parts of the garden. I waited to hear more but nothing came, so I started to head back under the covers. Just then I was struck by the beautiful view of the golden light starting to come over the horizon and into the misty garden. Bolstered by a dawn chorus of birds I thought to myself, "You dummy, don't go back to sleep get your camera and go see the garden."

The sunken Moat Walk

I splashed water on my face and tried as silently as possible to get dressed and head outside. A marvelously unpopulated Sissinghurst greeted me tinted by that radiant English light that we garden editors dream about and so rarely get. Wandering alone, I could see how the garden had been planted among the foundations of the Elizabethan castle and sense how it might have been for Adam and his siblings to grow up there in a place where the roles of indoor and outdoors seem to have been reversed. Here the garden is the centerpiece to a collection of former outbuildings turned into one unconventional collective "house". Adam writes beautifully about his life there and the long history of the place in a new book Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History. It's available now at Amazon.uk and will be published here by Viking in May 2010. Pre-order it here.

Several hours later, I was rushing to Heathrow still in a state of stunned amazement. Thank you Adam and Sarah for your hospitality and continued friendship.

The hot colors of the Cottage Garden (above and below)

Surprising long views open up at every turn

Early summer beds in the Rose Garden

Looking back at the Tower from the Rose Garden (above and below)

Remnants of the old castle walls divide the garden

My bedroom window was the open one on the left

The good kind of gladiolas

The Courtyard where the voices were heard

The Herb Garden

The Vestal Virgin in the White Garden

The white garden not at its seasonal peak but still lovely

Most every garden room has a tantalizing view to another space

The old Moat

The poppy problem

"Poppy, for example, is a drought resistant crop. So Afghanistan is in its 10th year of drought and years of war have destroyed the irrigation systems. So farmers will often tell you they don't really have any other crops they can physically grow - and that's a problem."—Gretchen Peters, author of Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda

Listen to yesterday's story above or here at npr.org.

Peters has interesting things to say about how heroin finances organized terror groups, the danger cheap, readily available heroin poses to a new influx of American troops, and the "chemical jihad" in which as she reports certain Islamist gangs want to turn western infidels into a nation of addicts.

Listen to Gretchen Peters previous segment here at npr.org where she explains how Afghanistan provides 90 percent of the world's heroin supply.

There is so much that we don't know about this complex situation, including our own government's involvement with opium poppy production over the past decades. Only thing I know, we can't blame the poor innocent plant for the problem.

Disney gardens

Some of my earliest garden memories are of the fantastical cartoon flowers in Walt Disney movies. I especially loved the talking plants in Alice in Wonderland and all the different varieties of dancing flowers in Fantasia. As you can imagine from this revelation, I wasn't of much use on the sports field...

On the occasion of the upcoming spring release of Tim Burton's new live action version for Disney which looks like it might be pretty marvy (pictures above and trailer here). I wanted to remind you of how great Disney's original mid-20th-century animation really was. I can almost taste the combination of salty popcorn and lemonheads now. Enjoy and have a good weekend!

Time lapse mushrooms (Thank you Maggie)

5 days, 18 hours and 25 minutes condensend into one minute. We all know what they look like so please keep comments on a mature level.

Blog numbers

I started this blog last February and on the occasion of this my 100th post I thought I would show a glimpse of the technological wonder known as Google Analytics.

With this tool I can see how many people stop by my blog and where they come from. Though I can't see who they are of course, I am thrilled to have readers in places so exotic—to me at least—as Iran, Angola, Yeman, Paraguay, Slovenia, Jakarta and Romania.

I would like to give a приветствие to my reader in Atyrau, Kazakhstan. I picture you sitting at your computer thinking of gardens in an apartment overlooking the Ural River where it runs into the salty, landlocked Caspian Sea.

And to my pal in Iceland, I think I know who you are: halló yndi, koma aftur bráðum.

And to all the rest of you in places as exotic as Van Nuys, Boise, and Utica, thank you for checking in from time to time and also thank you for being patient with my erratic posting schedule. I look forward to your next visit.

Book review—Bulb by Anna Pavord

I have to admit when I first heard that British author Anna Pavord's new book was about bulbs I thought, "Oh well...". Ms. Pavord's most well known book is The Tulip, and its justly famous. However this time, I felt it might be a bit boring to run down this similar well-trodden path yet again. I already own a lot of books on bulbs, ranging from reference titles like Taylor's Guide to Bulbs to very personal books such as The Little Bulbs by Elizabeth Lawrence. This time I was wrong.

First off, Bulb is filled with Ms. Pavord's first-hand horticultural knowledge of all the bulbs that are presented in its pages. I was lucky to meet the author at a dinner last week and she told our small group that she had grown every one of the 600 varieties about which she writes so beautifully. Friends, in today's throwaway society this experience is rare and exceedingly valuable. True their will be growing differences between her British climate and all of the ones we have here but one of the nice things about buying bulbs is that they come programmed to thrive. Each is a little packet of success (at least for the first year).

Secondly, this book is gorgeous and I never use that word. But yes it is, thick and heavy and filled with evocative photographs by Andrew Lawson and Torie Chugg. It's nice to see a work where the passion of the text and the visuals are so successfully married by such elegant design and art direction.

Now you must also know that the book is huge. At 544 pages and weighing over four pounds, it is not the sort of reading material that even the most die-hard gardener will take on a winter's beach vacation. However, it is precisely the sort that a person, namely me, will love to have on the nightstand and savor bit by bit, bulb by bulb before going to sleep.

In her acknowledgements Ms. Pavord writes, "I spend more on bulbs than clothes." And though she looked perfectly lovely at the recent dinner in her honor, I and so many other gardeners are blessed that she has chosen to use her money so wisely.

"'An enormous number of Fritillaries have stinking bells of dingy chocolate and greenish tones,' complained the pleasingly opinionated gardener Reginald Farrer. But that did not stop him growing them. Fritillaries are like that."—Anna Pavord

"Modern gladioli belong with the diamanté specs and knockout handbag of Dame Edna Everage, Barry Humphries's alter ego. With their vast flowers and unyielding stems, they are more at home on the show bench or in a vase than in a garden....The gladioli listed below are all good garden plants: they will get on well with neighbors in a border or you can grow them in pots either outside or in a cool greenhouse."—Anna Pavord

I particularly enjoy the bits of lore like this about colchicums:
"The name comes from Colchis (an ancient kingdom—and home of all sorcery—set between the Caucasus to the north and Armenia to the south) where the first plants are said to have sprung from drops of the potion brewed by the enchantress Medea, daughter of the king of Colchis, to restore youth to the ageing Aeson."—Anna Pavord

The poet's narcissus grows in a meadow in Greece, above.

Bulb by Anna Pavord (Mitchell Beazley). Hardcover, 544 pages, 10.9 x 7 x 1. 6 inches