garden

Posted by Ellen

In the year 1212, the woman who became Saint Clare of Assisi founded the Poor Clares order of nuns.  From the beginning, Poor Clares sisters were entirely cloistered and took vows of poverty much more extreme than those of other nuns of the time; they owned no property whatsoever, individually or collectively, and depended on alms for survival.

For the past 700 years, Poor Clares in Naples, Italy, have lived here, in Santa Chiara, a church and monstery complex built for them by Queen Sancha of Majorca and King Robert of Naples. The complex was extensively remodeled in the eighteenth century, with the addition of exuberant ornamentation, especially in this garden, that seems difficult to square with the nuns' professed poverty and simple life apart from the world.

Indeed, the tiled benches illustrate decidedly non-religious scenes, from masked pageantry at Carnival to peasants chasing after pigs. The tiles on the columns are garlanded in flowers and fruit: lemon trees, grape vines, figs and bananas. The designer was Domenico Antonio Vaccaro, an architect and sculptor known for imposing a personal stamp on every project, no matter what the client might have had in mind.

For two more centuries, the Poor Clares stayed on in Vaccaro's fanciful cloister, until 1995, some years after they had downsized to a smaller monastery next door. For the first time, their garden was opened to visitors from outside the order.

Posted by Ellen

John must have been about eight years old when he came across the special offer in a seed catalog: hey kids, add a penny of your own money to your parents' seed order, and you'll get a super fantastic packet of seeds just for you to plant.

If I remember correctly, we taped the penny to the order form, and I got my seeds and he got his. Both our gardens did pretty well that summer, thanks to the good advice of our neighbor on Fifth Avenue in Tuscaloosa, Mr. Crawford. John's turnip, shown here, must have been exactly the super fantastic return he'd been hoping for on his investment–and yup, he's still a gardener today, thirty years later.

At harvest time, he posed for a Polaroid snapshot in the kitchen with his brothers, Joe and Ted. Joe appears to be checking out a previously shot Polaroid, probably watching the colors emerge magically from the paper. Ted appears to be annoyed. Jealous maybe, of his brother's turnip?

Posted by Ellen

Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was said to be a tiny woman, less than five feet tall, tends her vegetable garden at Rocky Ridge farm in the southern Missouri Ozarks.

The photo is probably from the late 1920s or early 1930s, when Laura was in her sixties and working on her "Little House" series of books about her childhood in cabins and shanties and covered wagons on the midwestern frontier.

Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane–who referred to her as Mama Bess–conceived the literary project and worked for years behind the scenes to prepare Laura's stories for publication. Rose was a widely known writer at the time who kept her role in the "Little House" books a secret.

By the time mother and daughter were working on Laura's stories, they were not getting along well, and Rose was developing an obsession with extreme libertarian politics. They quarreled over what to put in and what to leave out and what to emphasize and how to describe things; it seems that Laura usually but by no means always had the last word.

In the middle of the work, which took more than ten years, Rose picked up and moved to Connecticut; they completed the collaboration by mail and long distance phone calls. They rarely saw each other again.

Rose's political extremism eventually ruined the writing she did in her own name; she became a ridiculous crank. Even a book she wrote for Woman's Day about needlework became an anti-communist screed. But while she was able to sneak some of her libertarian ideology into the Little House stories, Laura's no-nonsense approach apparently kept the focus on the adventures of Ma and Pa and the girls and Jack the brindle bulldog.

Rose's political writing celebrated the subsistence farmer as the only real American, free and self-reliant. She interpreted her mother's pioneering background as the classic American experience, even though the family's wanderings on the frontier had quickly forced them out of subsistence farming and eventually out of farming altogether. 

To Rose, the hardships of pioneering were ennobling challenges. To Laura, they had been hardships, suffering, tough times in life. To several generations now of American children, they were awesome adventures.

Posted by Ellen

Inside the screened porch in Columbia, Missouri, are tulips, safe from the deer. Outside in the yard is a homemade wood-fired bread oven.

Posted by Ellen

The tulips aren't here yet, but May is close now, just a wing and a prayer and a hop and a skip and a whiff and a shrug away.

Posted by Ellen

Mandrake, a plant of biblical, medieval, literary, medical, and comic book significance, blooms in April in New York City, in the garden of the Cloisters at the northern tip of Manhattan.

Mandrake flowers, shown here as buds just beginning to open, are pretty little bell-shaped blossoms, but they are traditionally of little interest. The leaves are heavy and heart-shaped and can grow huge over the course of a summer, but they too are mostly overlooked. With mandrake, a plant native to the Mediterranean region, it's all about the root.

Mandrake root is long and thick and often split into two legs, sometimes arguably resembling the human form. It's also powerfully sleep-inducing when ground and soaked; it was used as an anesthetic in antiquity and into the Middle Ages. In the bible, and perhaps also in the poetry of John Donne, extract of mandrake root cured infertility. In folklore all over Europe, a human-shaped mandrake root in your pocket offered protection even if the church was not on your side; Joan of Arc was charged with "habitually" carrying root of mandrake.

Mandrake was said to spring up in ground drenched with blood or semen from a man being hanged. If you pulled the plant up out of the ground, as Shakespeare warned us, its man-root would scream, and you could die from hearing the scream. There was a report as late as the ninteenth century of a British gardener falling down the stairs and dying after accidentally pulling up a volunteer mandrake.

(In Harry Potter, of course, young witches and wizards wore protection.)

In 1934, "Mandrake the Magician" emerged as the world's first modern costumed superhero, in a newpaper comic strip that ran continuously until 2013. The hero Mandrake's ability to instantly hypnotize bad guys may have been, pardon the expression, rooted in the medicinal tradition of the mandrake plant.

Posted by Ellen

When Dia got off the bike yesterday, she found something orange and dirty but tasty-looking in the garden. February in Seattle must not be quite as hard on green stuff as February back east.

Posted by Ellen

One week ago, on a chilly but sunny New York afternoon, this espaliered pear tree in the Cloisters medieval garden was trying really, really hard to leaf out.

Posted by Ellen

The gnarled little trees called wallum banksia thrive in the sandy heathlands along Australia's east coast, from Queensland down into northern New South Wales around Sydney. Tall spikes of yellow-green flowers linger for months on the branches, drying out and turning brown and then gray; the knobby fruits–seed follicles–may hang on the plant indefinitely, at least until a brush fire sweeps across the countryside, which is something that happens there about every seven to twelve years.

Wallum banksia are not harmed by fire, nor by salt spray or nutrient-starved sandy soil or extended drought. The species has evolved to thrive in extremely harsh conditions, in a habitat which, like the species itself, is known as wallum.

Fire may burn up the leaves and branches, but it also pops open the seed follicles, allowing new little wallum banksia to sprout up all around the old ones. Also, the roots often push up new growth after a fire, helping the species reclaim the territory from other opportunistic seeds that might be trying to spread thereabouts.

The specimen pictured here is not in Australia at all, but in the Australian garden area of Wellington Botanic Gardens in New Zealand. The climate in almost all of New Zealand is cooler and far moister than in most parts of Australia, and wallum banksia does not grow naturally in New Zealand. In fact, it is said that the healthiest, largest, fastest-growing specimens are in dry, sunny, fire-prone locations with poor soil comprised mostly of sand.

Posted by Ellen

'Tis not the season yet for Philly's New Years Day Mummery on parade, but mums of spectacular colors and colorful spectacle are already among us, at the Longwood Gardens Chrysanthemum Festival.

Above, the Longwood horticulturists grafted more than a hundred varieties of mums onto a single stem and somehow got them all blooming at the same time.

Below is a single bloom of the 'Nijin Bigo' cultivar, which we are told translates as 'Irregular incurve' Chrysanthemum morifolium.

And below that is the festival scene, in Longwood's main conservatory in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.