For Christmas, my wonderful parents gave me a whole stack of great gardening books this year, four in all. My mom has an amazing ability to keep track of books I have at one point expressed an interest in and sooner or later I always find them under the Christmas tree or arriving in a package for my birthday, often alongside some other similar book or another work by the same author which she thought might interest me as well. This year's treasures are the following:
This book, first published in 2009, is a beautiful account of over 30 years the authors spent living and gardening together, first in the Boston area and then at their famous garden in southern Vermont called North Hill. As such, it is not only full of practical observations and advice regarding a plethora of beautiful and rare plants but also constitutes a touching portrayal of a relationship and the making of garden which is as much a home as the house to which it is attached. There are certainly things in this book that I disagree with, mostly with regard to the cultivation of some plants or particular remarks about garden design. This used to bother me in a gardening book but I have now come to understand that it only helps me to define, refine, and explain my own opinions. Now such minor points of contention in no way detract from the pleasure I derive from reading such a marvelous book. Sadly, Wayne Winterrowd passed away earlier this year, so this will have been the last book by him. Luckily, however, there are earlier ones, two of which were also among my Christmas gifts.
A Year at North Hill: Fours Seasons in a Vermont Garden by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd (Here on Amazon)
A Year at North Hill: Four Seasons in a Vermont Garden
This book, published in 1995, is similar to Our Life in Gardens in that it was co-written by Eck and Winterrowd and presents a very personal account of their Vermont garden, its plants, and its seasonal labors, but it also has beautiful photographs and, as the title suggests, it is organized by seasons. This makes it perhaps a bit more useful as a garden advice book, though its prose is just a beautiful as that of Our Life in Gardens.
Annuals and Tender Plants for North American Gardens by Wayne Winterrowd (Here on Amazon )
Annuals and Tender Plants for North American Gardens
Published in 2004, this heavy tome is much more of a reference work, though it, too, offers Winterrowd's elegant - almost lyrical - and subtly entertaining writing style. The book lists, describes, and discusses a staggering number of annuals and plants that maybe grown as such and comments on the advantages and vicissitudes of their cultivation with an honesty that is brutal but refreshing. For sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus), for example, Winterrowd does not simply repeat instructions originally intended for the coastal climates of of Western Europe like so many other books do but he frankly admits that climatic conditions across North America make the plant challenging, if not impossible, to grow and a short-season pleasure at best. Which is not to say that the book is negative tone, for many plants are recommended enthusiastically and one is almost sure to come across a number of interesting plants one has never thought of growing before.
The Curious Gardener: A Year in the Garden by Anna Pavord (Here on Amazon)
The Curious Gardener: A Year in the Garden
This book, published this year, is a collection of essays by Anna Pavord published as part of her gardening column for The Independent. Wonderfully witty, it is fun to read and also contains much sounds advice, though once again I find myself disagreeing strongly in a few select cases, such as Pavord's instructions on how best to grow basil or how to prune a Hydrangea paniculata. Admittedly, however, in this case those differences of opinion are likely due mainly to the difference in climate between Pavord's England and the American Midwest and Northeast. The book also has a certain good-natured bluntness which I enjoy, my favorite line so far being, "Growing calcifuge shrubs such as azaleas or rhododendrons in soil that does suit them is not an experiment. It is murder." I wish the landscaping firms here in southeastern Michigan took this statement to heart instead of annually torturing to death rhododendrons by the hundreds, stubbornly unaccepting of the fact that these plants, grown in the acidic soils and mild, wet climate of parts of the Southeast or the Pacific Northwest, will never flourish here like they do on the East Coast or in blessed parts of Western Europe.
After writing the Barbaratag Post, in which I mentioned that Saint Barbara happens to be, rather oddly, the patron saint of mathematicians as well as those who work with explosives, I remembered taking a picture several years ago of a tile mural of Saint Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners. I figured it would only be appropriate to write a short post about him and so I tried to read up on this relatively little-known saint. I did not find much but did learn that Saint Fiacre was born in Ireland in the 7th century and later emigrated to France. He was apparently a skilled herbalist and healer as well as something of a hermit who tried to avoid human company and spend much time in the cultivation of his garden, which is most likely why he is considered patron saint of gardeners.
Azulejo mural of Saint Fiacre in the gardens of the Reales Alcázares in Seville, Spain
He is also considered patron saint of florists and taxi drivers and, bizarrely, of those who suffer from venereal diseases. Personally, I think that is an even odder combination than mathematicians and those who work with explosives...
I am sorry I have been absent for so long; I was just too busy with final papers and exams to take the time to write a post, and then, too, not much seemed to be happening around here horticulturally. Outside everything is bare and frozen - though there has not been any snow yet in these parts - but many of my indoor plants have been doing quite well, so this will be a little update on them. I apologize for the mediocre quality of the pictures; apparently I am incapable of taking good photographs given the lighting conditions in my windows.
Paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus papyraceus)
First up is a picture of the last bunch of flowers produced by the Paperwhite narcissus bulbs I potted up early in the fall. Now I know that it does not take any skill at all to get these two flower, but they still make me quite happy by adding a bit of spring cheer to this time of year (rhyme not intentional). Instead of throwing them out now that they are done flowering, I will try to cultivate them through until the leaves die back and then plant the bulbs in my family's garden in the spring. Let us hope that it works out.
Crown-of-Thorns (Euphorbia milii)
The second picture shows my little red-flowered crown-of-thorns (Euphorbia milii), which has so far brought me nothing but joy as it has been happily growing and flowering profusely for the past two month. My Maranta leuconeura erythroneura has been similarly fantastic, though that was somewhat less of a surprise since I already prior positive experiences with the regular form of the species. Not only has it been growing happily and without any pest or disease issues, but it has also been producing delicate flower spikes with tiny white flowers flushed with purple. They are rather inconspicuous but I find them pretty nonetheless.
Maranta leuconeura erythroneura
My Tradescantia spathacea appears to be doing all right as well, though admittedly all that means is that it is not sick and has grown a bit since I got it about two months ago. I have saw these used a lot as ground covers in India this past summer, and somehow that made me want to give them a try as a houseplant when I saw them at a flower shop here. I have since learned, though, they can be extremely invasive in warm climates and can cause horrible allergic reactions in dogs, so perhaps their cultivation should not be encouraged...
Tradescantia spathacea, syn. Rhoeo spathacea
Perhaps the most exciting development, however, though unfortunately also the least photogenic, is that some of the date pits I planted in late September have germinated into tiny date palm seedlings (Phoenix dactylifera). They were taken from fresh dates bought at Trader Joe's right after I took the GRE when I was craving comfort food, which at the time apparently meant dates. Extremely delicious they were; the variety, known as 'Medjool' (مجهول) , which means "unknown" in Arabic, is one of the varieties more commonly grown in the US, though apparently it originates in Morocco. I like it better than the Tunisian variety Deglet Noor, which is probably the most commonly sold variety in western countries, because even though the latter keeps its shape better and is prettier it is not as sweet and flavorful and can be rather dry. In any case, two of my 'Medjool' seeds are sending up their first leaves and even though date palms apparently do not come true from seed and there is little chance that my inevitably potted palm babies will ever grow to fruiting size, I am excited.
Date palm seedlings (Phoenix dactylifera)
Now I just have to hope that my plants make it through my absence over winter break...
Today is the feast day of Saint Barbara, a early Christian martyr and saint who is the patron of mathematicians and those who work with explosives. Her commemoration warrants a post on this blog because in the German-speaking world, there are various plant-related customs tied to Barbaratag or "Barbara Day". Traditionally, Barbarazweige or "Barbara twigs" are cut on this day and brought inside to be placed in a vase. These are normally small branches of cherries (Prunus sp.), apples (Malus domestica), or even forsythia (Forsythia sp.), though at least where I am from branches of the sweet cherry (Prunus avium) are most common and most traditional. The idea behind this is that in the warmth of the house, the branches will start flowering by Christmas.
Blossoms of an ornamental cherry (Prunus cv.)
Another, less wide-spread tradition associated with St. Barbara's feast day is Barbaraweizen or "Barbara wheat", for which wheat grains are placed on a plate and kept moist, the intent being that they germinate and grow into a bush of grassy greenery by Christmas eve. If you want to read more about St. Barbara and the Barbarazweige, you can visit last year's post which is a bit more extensive than this one.
Today, the book review section of The New York Times included a lengthy article of gardening book recommendations with short reviews by one Dominique Browning. The article is well written and entertaining, and some of the books sound very interesting indeed - I am particularly looking forward to reading the essay collection by Anna Pavord at some point:
I have also been think that at some point in the coming weeks I might do a post with book suggestions of my own, or about books I am really looking forward to reading. For now, however, term papers have to take precedence over lengthy pieces...
Today is the first day of Hanukkah, the Jewish "Festival of Lights", which will continue on until December 9th. This holiday commemorates a miracle associated with the re-dedication of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated by enemy forces in the 2nd century BCE. There was only enough oil to fuel the eternal flame that was supposed to burn in the temple for one day but it would take eight days to make more. Miraculously, the the flame kept burning until the new oil was ready.
There a numerous traditions associated with Hanukkah. In commemoration of the flame that burned for eight nights, candles are progressively lit each night on a Menorah with nine arms. People also often play with special four-sided spinning tops known as dreidels and gifts are exchanged in many families. There are also certain foods that are associated particularly with Hanukkah, including potato pancakes known as latkes and fried, jam-filled doughnuts known as paczki or sufganiyot. Supposedly these are linked to this festival partly because they are prepared using oil, hence linking them to the miracle at the center of the holiday.