Winter Wren

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.)

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The Garden at Monk’s House

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.

A little painting Arber photo

 

A Bungalow in Eagle Rock – and a Spring Salad

Flying from Anchorage and arriving in Southern California for the weekend felt such a treat – similar cloudless blue skies, but much warmer temperatures and no late March ice underfoot! We visited gardens in bloom, worked in our son’s garden, and ate great meals.

Our son and his sweet bride have made their classic California bungalow, in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles, so welcoming. One-story with a garage on a fairly busy street, it has commonalities with Downtown Abbey and our house in Washington – white walls and fir floors, books and pictures – but it invites one outdoors.

A few steps up from the garden, a large, veranda-like covered porch stretches across the back of the house. With newly dark-stained wood floors, an old blue-cotton covered loveseat, cushioned wicker chairs and a hammock, everything about this porch makes you want to linger with a book. The guest room opens onto the porch (all the back doors are sliding doors, no snow or wind to keep out), and I love to step straight out in bare feet.

The young couple has transformed their barren back yard, a rectangle of scrubby grass, into a city oasis. Just a small square of spring-green grass remains and around it, in generous garden beds, grow a pomegranate, persimmon, olive, lemon, orange, and banana tree. (It astounds me to write that list.)

A tall wooden spirit house from Thailand occupies one corner, surrounded by shrubby drought-resistant plants, and St. Francis stands in another corner amongst rosemary, lavender, and blooming sweet william. A row of closely planted podocarpus screen the near neighbors.

The winter kale was ready to be pulled and replaced by zucchini, pepper plants, and tomatoes (later in the season they might come north to Alaska and Washington). After planting, watering, and weeding it’s March bliss to a Northwesterner to have a beer under a sun umbrella on the brick patio – and to eat breakfast outdoors as well.

The new kitchen is brightened by tubular skylights, white walls and cupboards, and made colorful by open and glass-fronted shelving full of pottery and travel treasures. An eating counter with stools replaced the wall between kitchen and dining room. It’s great place to perch and watch a fabulous meal come together, thanks to the sweet bride!

She served “Vegetables and Brown Rice Salad,” and later sent her recipe. (It seems like you could easily vary both the vegetables used and the quantities.)

In a large bowl mix together a couple of diced carrots, a cup of white beans, a couple of chopped tomatoes, a tablespoon of sliced shallots, a zucchini (cut in half and sliced), finely sliced kale, and kalamata olives. To dress this mix, the sweet bride recommended regular oil and balsamic vinegar salad dressing, suggesting I add a little soy sauce or sesame oil. She warned me to add the dressing sparingly.

Mix in a cup of cooked brown rice, combined well with a tablespoon of lime juice, and season with salt and pepper.

Rice and white beans and real spring – treats!

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Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life

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.