The results of the paperwhite experiment are inconclusive: two of my four pots of 'Ziva' were given a measure of alcohol each time they were watered while two had water alone; all were placed in largely similar locations in terms of light and warmth, and there is no appreciable difference in height of leaves and flower stems, or floppiness of same, so perhaps I was stingy with the spirits.
No matter, the flowers - which are not as highly scented as some varieties I've had - are a welcome foretaste of spring.
This morning I got the nicest email from a reader; it would have touched me at any time but was particularly meaningful today as all is not well in my wider family and a cheering message is especially welcome just now.
It made me think that, even more than usual, we must focus on the positive, the bright, the good, and take pleasure in small things. If you're a regular visitor here you'll know that for me these are often flowers and gardens, food, music, making things, and of course, books, so I've written briefly about the nicest book of the year over on the other site, and thought I'd share some more lovely books on this one.
I'm just coming to the final pages of Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst: The Creation of a Garden by Sarah Raven. As I'm sure you will know, Sarah is the current chatelaine of Sissinghurst, being married to Vita's grandson Adam Nicolson, and as a gardener and gardening writer in her own right she is well-placed to edit this collection of Vita's writings which presents both practical advice and personal vision and preference. I've come away from it with a long list of plants I want to grow, but it's been a most pleasing read for Vita's style alone.
With a new garden to stock, I was delighted to receive some more useful books for Christmas, and the following will, I know, give me much to enjoy over the coming weeks:
The RHS Companion to Scented Plants by Stephen Lacey features over 1,000 fragrant plants from herbs to annuals, shrubs, bulbs, trees and more - another one from which to make a lengthy shopping list.
Back on home turf, The Writer's Garden: How Gardens Inspired our Best-loved Authors by Jackie Bennett: "Great things happen in gardens - in real life as well as in fiction. When Jane Austen, Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens wanted inspiration for the characters or settings in their books, they looked first to their gardens and landscapes. [The book] goes inside the lives of 20 influential authors to discover the roles that gardens played. From Sir Walter Scott's fairytale Scottish castle to Rupert Brooke's riverside retreat in Cambridge, from Virginia Woolf's rural Sussex idyll [see also] to Beatrix Potter's windswept hill-top farm in the Lake District, each garden provides new insights into the writer's work, life, solace and inspiration."
We are at the turn of the year as 11.03 tonight is the solstice, so those of us in the northern hemisphere have the cheering prospect of lengthening days ahead.
We'll be needing our warming fires for a while yet, though, so here's a nice passage - and a good tip - for you from Max Adams's book The Wisdom of Trees: A Miscellany:
"The log fire is a simple pleasure that taps into our deep ancestral sensibilities like its polar twin, the fear of darkness and the great wildwood. Its seductive, dangerous display is like that of a wild beast, drawing us to it then repelling us with mortal fear. Fire gives one the feeling of belonging to a crowd, and yet at the same time there is a sense of being utterly alone, absorbed in one's most intimate, private thoughts. The fire is the focus of story and song, of shared and individual memory, of collective knowledge. It stores the memories of whole cultures in its shifting, sensuous flames ...
[An iron basket] is the worst way to burn wood, which combusts most efficiently with an overdraught (unlike coal, which requires the underdraught provided by a grate). Wood should be burnt on the ground, not in the air, and anyone with a modern clean-burning woodstove will find that it burns less wood and produces more heat if the grate is kept full of wood ash and the bottom vent is shut once it was going....
Different species of wood burn differently. Softwoods like pine or spruce burn quite hot but not for long; birch burns very hot and bright but can spit; apple smells the best of any wood; beech and oak burn longest and hottest. And ash, as is commonly known, is one of the few woods (another is holly) whose fat reserves, stored over winter as oleaceous oils, allow it to be burned green; that is to say, as soon as it is cut."
Did you know that giving paperwhite narcissi a little alcohol with their water will keep them from being leggy and requiring support? I've only just read about this but I thought I'd pass it on in case I'm not the only one to whom it is news.
The picture is from my archive as this year's plants are yet to flower, but according to Woottens of Wenhaston from whom I recently bought the variety Ziva for the house, they have strong stems which require no staking, so perhaps they can remain teetotal. I'm tempted to experiment, though, and give half the pots a tipple and half just Adam's ale and see what happens - has anyone tried it?
A year ago we asked Carolyn Grohmann* of Secret Gardens to design a new garden for us. This was a big step, and a not inexpensive one, but a year on we can say it has been a good decision. Interpreting the brief with sensitivity and an instinctive understanding of what would suit the house and its owners, Carolyn came up with plans for both front and rear gardens which thanks to Robin Torrie and his team from Water Gems have now been made flesh.
Work has been going on over the last few months, and while the building of the garden is now complete, the planting is at the very early stages and will continue well into next year (and beyond, of course), but in terms of the 'bones', we are utterly delighted with what Carolyn and Robin have created for us, and as to their attention to detail, the standard of their work, and the considerate way in which the job has been done, we couldn't be more impressed and appreciative.
The picture above shows the rear garden in the drizzle this morning, the markers indicating some of the 1400 bulbs we planted over the weekend. The four parterre beds will contain mixed planting with the less formal, more shady areas towards the far end being given over to woodland plants (the picture gives a slighty skewed perspective - the whole thing is much bigger than it looks), and on the south-facing wall to the right we have espaliered apple trees, a raised bed for vegetables, and a greenhouse. We couldn't be happier with it.
Along the way, we have given much entertainment to passers-by who have stopped to watch the work going on at the front of the house, where amongst other things we moved the entrance (a digger and other heavy machinery were involved), and to neighbours who have commented most favourably on the transformation. I, too, have found the process extremely interesting as the Water Gems men, ably led on site by Luke, coped with logistical challenges and the very hard work involved in the build with unfailing good humour and dedication. It was a pleasure to have them here, and after so many weeks in their company, I miss them now that they've gone!
If you've noticed a lack of Friday flowers posts this year, it's because once the preparatory work started there were virtually no flowers left to feature, but now that that fallow period is over we are looking forward to plenty in future, and I hope to record the garden's progress on these pages.
*Just by the way, Carolyn numbers novelist Kate Atkinson among her clients, and you can see her lovely Edinburgh garden here.
A wander round St. Andrews this morning yielded much in the way of floral interest - despite the lateness of the season. I love the huge verdigris pots of cyclamen outside a house in North Street, the tiny mossy St. Andrews Preservation Trust Museum garden, and the wit of the Ladies' Golf Union down on The Scores.
"Vita hated Hybrid Teas, and was not keen on most of the Hybrid Perpetuals [...]. She felt the new varieties lacked 'the subtlety to be found in some of these traditional roses which might well be picked off a medieval tapestry or a piece of Stuart needlework. Indeed, I think you should approach them as though they were textiles rather than flowers. The velvet vermilions of petals, the stamens of quivering gold, the slaty purple of Cardinal Richelieu, the loose dark red and gold of Alain Blanchard; I could go on for ever, but always I should come back to the idea of embroidery and of velvet and of the damask with which some of them share their name.' "
The picture is not mine but, I hope, anticipates one of my own. It's from rose breeder David Austin and is of Munstead Wood, one of a number of roses I have just ordered from them, so I'm already looking forward to next summer's blooms and shall bear in mind Vita's words.
"The air was densely perfumed with a mixture of Victoria's scent (white heliotrope, from a shop off the Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris), potted jasmine and gardenias that stood about on every surface, apple logs in the grate and, on window ledges and tables, 'bowls of lavender and dried rose leaves, ... a sort of dusty fragrance sweeter in the under layers': the famous Knole potpourri, made since the reign of George I to a recipe devised by Lady Betty Germain, a Sackville cousin and former lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne."
You can read a little about "the prim-looking" Lady Betty and her rooms at Knole - Vita's ancestral home - here, and this post apparently gives the recipe for the potpourri. Over here is another rather nice extract from the biography.
I've written about Helen's shoes before as I've been a customer of hers for many years, though my taste runs to the more understated end of the range, but above you'll see some of her striking designs worn by violinist Alice Rickards and cellist Sonia Cromarty as they play a piece from Transplanted, "a celebration of the rich diversity of Scotland's plant life and its music". The sonata is Primrose by Scottish baroque composer James Oswald.
In Melrose the other day we visited Priorwood Garden, known especially for its orchard. Look at those pears on that fine old south-facing wall; note also the 'door' on the right (below) which is at first floor level and opens onto nothing but a drop to the ground - might it once have had a forestair?)
The orchard is home to many old varieties of apple,