And who is this kg who misdated all these paintings – welcome her to 2016!
On a pouring rain day at the end of February, a lone bright-red anemone, scattered crocus, and many snowdrops bloom in the garden. Hellebore cluster together on straight stems and bow their blossom heads. An acid spring-green colors a proliferation of not-yet-blooming forget-me-nots, the sharp spears of new crocosmia, and thick moss on garden bed edging logs and pavers. That newborn green shines against the dark gray of winter forest, and amid a discouraging amount of standing water.
Indoors, I consider the bird project – begun with my very favorite and one of the smallest – the winter wren (maybe finding its shape, but not yet background.)
For ten years Caroline Zoob and her husband lived as caretakers and tenants at the miniature (by modern standards) Monk’s House in Sussex, longtime home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Responsible for maintaining the garden and the house and keeping them open to the public on set days, their brief from The National Trust suggested they garden “in the spirit of Bloomsbury,” “using bright colors in a painterly style.”
And now Zoob has made a beautiful book in the spirit of Bloomsbury – “Virginia Woolf’s Garden: The Story of The Garden at Monk’s House.” Along with Zoob’s text, photographs from the Woolfs’ time, and lavish contemporary photos by Caroline Arber, the book contains Zoob’s truly delightful, embroidered garden maps – a unique touch in a garden book. Zoob’s narrative of Virginia’s life serves as a good refresher or introduction, and the book also stands as a gardening book with planting recommendations based on experiences in the Monk’s House garden and descriptions of its garden rooms.
Zoob often uses Virginia’s own words to describe the garden and her pleasure in the seasons there: “The snow came down on Saturday, thick white cake sugar all over the garden…,” “the nights are long and warm, the roses flowering; and the garden full of lust and bees, mingling in the asparagus beds” – a gardening book with Virginia Wolf’s observations!
In the mid-90s I visited Monk’s House (before Zoob’s time and most of the plants quiet for the season), and was among those Zoob would call “visitors on a pilgrimage.” Thrilled to walk where Virginia walked and see the views she saw, I watched a woman pick an apple from one of Leonard’s apple trees and bite into it. Startled, I felt both dismay – should she do that? – and complete understanding of why she would want to.
The house remains much as it was a hundred years ago, and only a limited part of it is open to the public. You envy Zoob living day in and day out as the Woolfs did, with her black-and-white cats, Handlebars and Boy, at home in their garden, and morning sunshine coming down the steps into the kitchen. You also shudder at the trials – water pouring down the same steps into the kitchen when it rained, a clawed bathtub on a tilt. Both couples endured bitterly cold winters – the Woolfs with no central heating, and the modern couple a long stretch with a broken boiler.
Gardens rarely outlast their creators, so I loved this book describing its ongoing life. I think Virginia would be pleased with things, including this treasure of a book.
In January, just before I left for Alaska, I stopped by my clever friend’s house to deliver cooked vegetables from stock making to her chickens. She pointed across a little lane from her garden to a single snowdrop blooming in the shelter of a hedge.
On the airplane I kept thinking of that snowdrop as I read nearly all of Marta McDowell’s “Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places that Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales.” McDowell’s focus is on Beatrix as a gardener. (Although more proper in form, it’s hard to call her Potter, McDowell acknowledges the same problem in her introduction).
It’s a gardening book about a long life of creativity, a perfect companion to Linda Lear’s comprehensive “Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature,” and a book to buy as a real book. The beautifully designed volume combines text with Beatrix’s watercolors, drawings, and illustrated letters, along with photographs from those days and these, and maps.
McDowell describes Beatrix’s childhood in London, exploring city gardens, and summers spent in the countryside, where her passion for drawing and the natural world began. In the second section of the book, McDowell writes in the present tense using Beatrix as protagonist, giving immediacy to her description of the months of the gardening seasons.
She writes about the time, just two months after her beloved Norman Warne died, when Beatrix bought Hilltop Farm, near Sawrey in the Lake District, and began to build her own garden – a cottage garden “combining traditional materials, informal dense plantings, and a mixture of ornamental and edible plants.” (Beatrix once wrote: “There’s nothing like open air soothing present anxiety and memories of past sadness.”)
McDowell’s third section tells of the pleasure to be had now in a visit to the Lake District. You can visit Hilltop Farm, set in pastoral English countryside – much of it protected by the efforts of Beatrix Potter. (One might say, “saved by Peter Rabbit.”) Even after reading Lear’s book and watching the movie “Miss Potter,” it hadn’t registered how many painting backdrops – gardens, villages, and streets – were actual places, and some still exist.
The descriptions of the Lake District garden year sound much like the Pacific Northwest, “storage apples going out as rhubarb comes in,” then our same progression begins – “snowdrops, primula, pansies, aquilegia, foxglove, clematis.”
And it starts in January. The evening we returned home, our headlights lit up the courtyard garden, and I could see standing in short spikes – though not blooming yet – patches of snowdrops.