January 27, 2013

"Well, No, You Can't Be As Desperate As That..."

Like everyone else in America, I am spending Sunday evenings this winter in front of my television watching ‘Downton Abbey’.  And, like every male watching the show (or at least I suspect this is the case), I was only half paying attention last week because Lady Edith’s wedding preparations and resulting tribulations can hold me spellbound for only so many minutes. But Betty loves the show and so I watch it, too, provided I’m allowed to read the newspaper, work a Sudoku or read email at the same time.

The Dowager Countess offers Lady
Edith some advice about gardening
At the risk of providing a spoiler alert, in last week’s installment it is 1921 and Lady Edith has been jilted at the altar by Sir Anthony Strallan (who appears to be on the wrong side of 70 but whom Lady Edith desperately loves).  Lady Edith takes to her bed, sobbing.  Then, after perhaps a month, we see Lady Edith trying to come to terms with her new status as Perpetual Spinster.  Seeking direction in her life, she goes to her grandmother, the Dowager Countess, and the following exchange takes place:

The Dowager Countess:  “Surely, there must be something you can put your mind to.”

Lady Edith:  “Like what, gardening?”

The Dowager Countess: “Well, no, you can’t be as desperate as that.”

At that point, I put down my crossword puzzle and started shaking my fist at the television.  How dare Downton Abbey put down gardening!

Gertrude Jekyll, a
contemporary of the
Dowager Countess
And then I started to think that, well, it’s 1921 and maybe gardening really was a ‘desperate’ avocation for a woman, and especially a titled woman.  Then, a couple of names popped into my mind.  The first one was Gertrude Jekyll.  Ms. Jekyll was born in 1843 and so would likely have been a contemporary of the Dowager Countess.  By 1890, Ms. Jekyll was the most sought-after garden designer in the United Kingdom and she would go on to create more than 400 gardens in Britain and America.  In 1921, Ms. Jekyll published Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden, a book that would inspires millions of mixed flower borders.  It was likely in the Downton Abbey library.

Beatrix Farrand.  Martha Levinson
could have made the introduction
The second name that occurred to me was Beatrix Farrand.  Born in 1872, she was American and so wouldn’t have had a title, but it is quite likely that the Levinsons (the American family that married into the Crawleys and replenished their fortune) could have arranged an introduction, as Ms. Farrand was the niece of Edith Wharton, who would have been a neighbor of Martha Levinson in both Newport and New York City.  Ms. Farrand began designing gardens at 25; roughly Lady Edith’s age.  And, Ms. Farrand was working in England in 1921, designing the magnificent garden at Dartington Hall in Devon.

Vita Sackville-West.  Although
titled (she was Lady Nicolson),
she did a little gardening.
But, even knowing that the Dowager Countess was rather openly class conscious, it would have been impossible for her to ignore Vita Sackville-West (or, to introduce her more properly, Lady Nicolson).  Born in 1892 and so only a few years older than Lady Edith, Lady Mary already had several successful published novels by 1921 (‘The Dragon in Shallow Waters’ was published that year).  In 1930, she and her husband would acquire Sissinghurst Castle, where Lady Mary would go on to do some very nice gardening.

I realize that Downton Abbey is drama and that it is the product of the imagination of Julian Fellowes.  But Mr. Fellowes seems to have it in for gardeners.  In Season One, we learned that since the Norman Conquest, the Dowager Countess has won the annual prize for ‘Best Bloom’ at the Downton Village flower show.  But the Dowager Countess actually has nothing to do with growing those roses.  It is her gardener who does all the work, and she simply shows up to collect the prize.  Moreover, in doing so, she is deliberately slighting the work of her own butler’s father, whom everyone in Downton knows has exquisite rose-growing skills and who ought to have been winning the competition all along.

All right; so maybe I’ve been paying more attention to Downton Abbey than I let on.  But darn it, Mr. Fellowes, go a little easier on us gardeners.

January 21, 2013

A Subtropical Respite on a Winter's Day

Yesterday was one of those nasty New England days that fairly scream, ‘stay indoors’.  And so we did.  But there are many kinds of ‘indoors’.  The one we chose to huddle in featured a dazzling fuschia bougainvillea canopy, hundreds of orchids, a mass of camellias bursting to open, and several thousand assorted citrus, herb, tropical and other specialty plants.  And we had the place all to ourselves for most of our visit.

A bougainvillea canopy greets you
as you enter the greenhouse complex.
Welcome to the Lyman Estate greenhouse complex.  It’s located in Waltham, Massachusetts, and is part of a Historic New England property.  If you’re a Historic New England member, entry is free.  If not, the price of admission is four dollars, or roughly one percent of the cost of an airline ticket to Florida.

The Lyman Estate is a glimpse of an all-but-vanished New England: a summer country retreat for Brahmin Bostonians.  Located ten miles from Beacon Hill, the original house was built in 1793, enlarged in 1882 and remodeled in 1917.  The property, now 37 acres (200 at its peak), remained in the Lyman family until being donated to the predecessor organization to Historic New England in the 1950s.

The estate’s greenhouses are considered one of the oldest surviving such complexes in the country.  It consists of four interconnected structures; an 1804 grape house, an 1820 camellia house, an 1840 orchid house, and a 1930 cutting flower structure now used as a sales pavilion.

In 19th Century New England, greenhouses were both practical investments and status symbols.  They provided fresh vegetables in winter for well-to-do Boston homes.  They also were evidence of interest in serious horticulture.  The Lyman family is associated with the founding of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society (which, in 1969, reciprocated by funding the restoration of the greenhouses).

The Camellia Room.  Officially, the
season starts February 7, but there
are plenty of plants in bloom now.
The oldest section of the greenhouse was originally built to grow the aforementioned vegetables, plus exotic foods like figs, lemons, limes and pineapples.  In the 1870s, it was converted into a grape house.  The green Muscat of Alexandria grapes growing there today are descendants of the original cuttings.  I can’t find a reliable source for the age of the enormous bougainvillea growing in the second section of the grape house, but its six-inch-thick trunk suggests an origin in the first half of the 20th Century.

The second oldest section of the complex is the 1820 camellia house.  Originally planted with peach trees, it was converted to growing camellias in 1908.  Several of the trees in the greenhouse today are more than a century old.

One part of the orchid house.
The third section of the greenhouse, the orchid house, filled in the space between the grape house and the camellia house.  The variety of orchids, and the care taken to ensure that each species has the correct lighting and space, makes a trip to the greenhouse a ‘worth a journey’ kind of event for anyone serious about orchids.

The sales pavilion was once used as
an indoor cutting garden
The final segment of the greenhouse was added in 1930, when the Lyman family added a structure to allow for winter propagation of cut flowers that would grace the estate’s living spaces.  Part of its plan was an indoor goldfish pond built as a heat reservoir.  Today, it’s a sales space where you can browse hundreds of plants without any buying pressure.  The goldfish pond survives, planted in papyrus.

February 6 marks the ‘official’ start of the camellia blooming season with attendant publicity, and the have-the-place-to-yourself atmosphere will disappear, at least on weekends.  There’s no need to wait for the official announcement:  we saw dozens of camellias in bloom.  As the season progresses, the estate holds five heirloom and specialty plant sales that bring droves of visitors.  There’s also no need to wait for those.  We found – and purchased – three exquisite and irresistible new plants for our home.

The greenhouses are a hidden gem.  They’re an antidote to a bleak winter’s day and are open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The Lyman House is open to the public only once each month, on the third Saturday.  The rest of the time, it is rented for special events, notably weddings.

January 9, 2013

Tough Love

The jasmine plant in our master bathroom right has started to flower.  For the next two months, it will offer an olfactory hint of perfumed, Southern evenings in addition to its considerable visual charms.

By all rights, it ought to be dead.

In December 2011, we ordered a jasmine plant from White Flower Farm (I wrote about it here).  Common in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, Jasminum polyanthum is a semitropical vine, hardy to Zone 8.  Up here in the frozen north, it can only be grown as an indoor specimen.

Jasminum polyanthum.  A great winter
bloomer indoors
Our vine arrived beautifully planted in a hanging pot, rife with buds, and ready to be sat in a sunny but cool room to do its thing.  And, it did very well through its typical bloom period of January and February.  We enjoyed it every day.

I am well aware that many people purchase plants strictly because they are in bloom and, once that bloom is past, the plant becomes, well, expendable.  In my book, people can do with their houseplant what they want.  Plants, after all, are not puppies or kittens.  But around our home, there are no such things as ‘disposable’ houseplants.  Once a plant has entered our home, we do – within reason – whatever it takes to keep the plant healthy and happy for the long term.  Part of this is Yankee thrift; mostly, it is a belief that growing things indoors in winter is good practice for growing them outdoors in summer.

But White Flower Farm’s use and care booklet seemed to do everything in its power to scare off would-be jasmine farmers.  The instructions included ones like these: “To encourage the formation of flower buds for next winter, be sure your plant experiences the cooler temperatures and shorter days of early autumn. The plant needs 4-5 weeks of nighttime temperatures between 40° and 50°F, plenty of sunlight and the complete absence of artificial light after sundown.”

Once jasmine has finished its bloom,
it's a fairly dull vine
A few months ago, I asked Barbara Pierson, White Flower Farm’s greenhouse manager, why she offered such complex advice about plant care.  Her response was quite charitable:  “Most people need reassurance about what to do, and so we go into great detail about how to care for their plant.”

I suspect that most people who ordered jasmine plants in December 2011 put them out on their deck the following spring and then forgot about them.  There is nothing especially attractive about a jasmine plant that is not in bloom.  When that first frost hit in October, the plants were likely chucked out with the coleus and petunias.

We kept our plant in our screened, covered porch through the summer and brought it in with the rest of the houseplants in mid-September.  I was struggling with the question of where we could guarantee that the plant received that ‘complete absence of artificial light’ when it dawned on me that our basement, while not perfect, fulfilled most of the requirements.  It has a full bank of half-height windows and a fairly constant 55 degrees.  It gets artificial lights only when I journey into the basement for something.  We overwinter a number of plants there, including cyclamen, bougainvillea and aquatics. The jasmine fit right in.  From October through January we watered it sparingly but otherwise left it alone.

Off in a corner of the
basement: a jasmine flower
Then, this past weekend, I was in the basement to get wine, and happened to notice something white:  it was a jasmine flower.  Moreover, the plant was nicely covered with buds and a host of new tendrils were searching for something to grab onto.

The jasmine promptly came upstairs and into that cool bathroom where it will now receive the additional light it needs to promote flowering.

There’s a lesson here for gardeners, and I think it is this:  read the ‘use and care’ booklets that come with plants, but take them as guidance rather than as ‘my way or the highway’ rules.  In short, don’t be afraid to exercise some ‘tough love’ when a plant’s season is over.   

January 2, 2013

In Praise of Houseplants

“All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray…”

California Dreaming, John Phillips and Michelle Phillips

A fast-moving storm last week dropped seven inches of snow on my home, turning white a landscape that has been, since early November, a sad blend of browns and grays.  Welcome to winter in eastern Massachusetts, a condition that will persist in some variation for the next three months.

Which is why this first entry of the new year  is all about houseplants and why they’re treasured in this household. 

I grew up with year-round outdoor greenery and flowers.  Nominally, I appreciated that subtropical splendor.  In reality, it was part of a background that I took for granted and often found inconvenient.  When periodically ordered to cut back the hibiscus hedge or grub out the aracea palms that were spreading into the lawn, I piled imaginary term papers on top of one another as excuses not to sully my hands with such chores.

Burbidgea 'Golden Brush'
This morning, by contrast, I marveled at a Burbidgea scheizochella ‘Golden Brush’ that has sent up a strikingly attractive flower.  It grows in our Great Room where there is abundant light even in January.  Multiple crotons (formally, Codiaeum variegatum) provide a rainbow of reds, yellows and greens in each leaf.  There are cultivars of begonias in many rooms, each an adventure to be appreciated. 

One of our crotons, and a
neomarica that will bloom
in February and March
These plants need not be exotic, or even in bloom, to provide visual enjoyment.  Ferns occupy ledges and shelves in several rooms.  A single peace lily (Spathiphyllum) received as gift many years ago has begat half a dozen offspring. They are cheerfully green the year round.  This time of year, their regal white flowers – plain by the standards set by many other plants – are welcome additions to rooms’ color. 

We purchase houseplants that appeal to us.  Some, we encounter in visits to nurseries and garden centers.  Others beckon us through the mail.  The cover of Logee’s winter catalog featured a glorious Calathea unlike any we had ever seen.  The photo of that plant coupled with a dozen other candidates prompted us to take a Saturday morning trip to Daniels, Connecticut, last month to inspect the goods.  Calathea ‘Holiday’ is now blooming in our living room, one of half a dozen new specimens that are now part of our collection.  It joins another recent arrival, a compact Euphorbia ‘Salmon’ from White Flower Farm, that is already resplendent with flowers that should continue through the winter months.

An orchid and a potted palm
add a touch of the tropics
Winter color need not come only from exotic specimens.  Colorful cyclamen can enliven a home just as well as orchids (and, thanks to tissue cultures, the availability and variety of orchids has proliferated even as their price has plummeted).  Nor are houseplants necessarily greedy.  Philodendron and cacti seem to thrive with minimal attention (a Sanseveria trifoliate, better known as ‘Mother-in-Law’s tongue’, survived in my Aunt Virginia's house for decades with little more than periodic dusting).

In Betty's office, a kalanchoe
and a bouganviella 'Coconut
Ice' are both about to bloom.
We have more than sixty houseplants in all, a happy mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary.  There is no rhyme or reason to what we have.  Each plant came to us through serendipity; each remains because it has thrived in our home.

I don’t often offer unsolicited advice, but here is some:  if you're reading this from a land with 'real' winter, this weekend, take a trip to a nursery with a selection of blooming houseplants.  If one (or more) strikes your fancy, take it home with you. 
And, if you live in a subtropical climate, stop complaining and go out and trim back the hibiscus.