Blue hydrangea

 

In late August, hydrangeas take center stage in the Berkshires. And in a summer with so little live music, dance, or theater, they’re putting on a welcome show. Our “Pinky Winky” paniculatas are exploding in the back garden, setting off rockets of deep rust and white surrounded by bursts of tiny sparklers. On a drive through town as dusk descends, the hooped skirts of a row of Annabelles — snow white and otherworldly in the fading light — look like so many ball gowns gently adrift on the darkening lawn. A few years ago, I fell in love with blue hydrangeas which thrive in fertile, acidic soil, making them a dangerous passion to take up for someone with my pebble-strewn, alkaline-tending garden. Amendments, peat moss, replanting — trying to give a blue hydrangea the perfect bed is not unlike the search for a comfortable mattress in the “Princess and the Pea”.  Most years I get only a handful of good blooms.  This summer, with an early infestation of aphids, I ended up with only three.  But it was worth it, especially now as the petals’ summery pale blue begins to deepen into a deep, moody maroon.

In Rainer Maria Rilke’s evocative poem on the subject he compares the melancholy of the fading flowers to dried paint pots, blue writing paper, a tear stained mirror, and a child’s pinafore — all within the sonnet’s 14 lines — and, even then, manages a joyful burst of hope at the end.  That’s the kind of magical effect these beauties will have on you.

Blue Hydrangea

Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Edward Snow

These leaves are like the last green
in the paint pots—dried up, dull, and rough,
behind the flowered umbels whose blue
is not their own, only mirrored from far away.

In their mirror it is vague and tear-stained,
as if deep down they wished to lose it;
and as with blue writing paper
there is yellow in them, violet and gray;

washed out as on a child’s pinafore,
no longer worn things, which nothing can befall:
how one feels a small life’s shortness.

But suddenly the blue seems to revive
in one of the umbels, and one sees
a touching blue’s rejoicing in green.

 

Posted in Blog | 11 Comments

Raspberries

The garden has always been a place of refuge, but it seems especially so this summer. To be able to walk out, unmasked, across the dew-laden grass in the early morning to pick raspberries is to know peace.  The news alerts come by way of the blue jays hectoring a squirrel in the hemlocks. Though our social lives remain meager, never has nature seemed more bountiful. The tomato vines and espaliered pear trees droop with ripening fruit. Overnight, the tightly packed pale beige raspberry buds swelled and softened. About the size of gumdrops now, they fall off the branch with a gentle tug, leaving behind a small white tag — like a tongue sticking out. It’s hard not to start eating them on the way back to the house.  There’s more than enough to share with the family of chipmunks that lives under the barn and the new brood of wild turkeys who swing past the bushes on their perambulations through the fields and woods. The smaller turkeys jump up and pull at the branches, making the bushes shake all over as if convulsed by laughter.  Warm and sweet, the freshly picked berries taste of  heat and lassitude and all the very different summers that have gone before.

The Raspberry Room

By Karin Gottshall

It was solid hedge, loops of bramble and thorny
as it had to be with its berries thick as bumblebees.
It drew blood just to get there, but I was queen
of that place, at ten, though the berries shook like fists
in the wind, daring anyone to come in.  I was trying
so hard to love this world—real rooms too big and full
of worry to comfortably inhabit—but believing I was born
to live in that cloistered green bower: the raspberry patch
in the back acre of my grandparents’ orchard.  I was cross-
stitched and beaded by its fat, dollmaker’s needles.  The effort
of sliding under the heavy, spiked tangles that tore
my clothes and smeared me with juice was rewarded
with space, wholly mine, a kind of room out of
the crush of the bushes with a canopy of raspberry
dagger-leaves and a syrup of sun and birdsong.
Hours would pass in the loud buzz of it, blood
made it mine—the adventure of that red sting singing
down my calves, the place the scratches brought me to:
just space enough for a girl to lie down.

Posted in Blog | 14 Comments

Scattered blossoms

The rain has left a trail of rose and peony petals across the lawn —fresh and fragrant — as though just strewn by a flower girl at a wedding. It’s always heartbreaking to see these first fragile blooms of summer scatter to the ground.  We waited so long for their arrival, checking daily through the long, chilly spring for signs of progress. Then one morning we turned Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 18 Comments

Nesting

We’ve been watching the birds return to their summer homes these past few weeks.  One morning, an explosion of bright orange hit the living room window as a pair of claws scrabbled at the iron mullions, trying to gain a foothold.  It was a Baltimore Oriole, come back to the place that had offered free orange halves the year before.  I quickly nailed fresh oranges to the porch post and soon both a male and female (not to mention a sapsucker and red squirrel) were pecking at the fruit. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 14 Comments

Soft rains

It’s been a long slow wet spring in the Berkshires.  Temperatures struggle to get out of the 50s by day and sink into frost territory overnight. We’re still waking up to a dusting of snow some mornings. It feels as though we’re stuck in Ground Hog Day and will keep rebooting this unremarkable moment in mid-February forever. Though there is some comfort in the predictable rhythm of repetition right now, the sense of time passing homogeneously within the same four walls for the most part, between the same two people, protected from the jarring dissonance of change. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 13 Comments

Spring snow

It snowed in the Berkshires yesterday. Thick lazy flakes drifted down through the late afternoon sky— too wet to stick. We went to bed with the ground outside the color of old shoe leather and woke to a blanket of white. A thin blanket, though, one riddled with the stubble of last season’s garden and pierced by the first green shoots of spring.  Still, it felt like a respite of some kind — like manna, the bread of heaven that supposedly fed the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.

Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 2 Comments

Skunk hour

http://www.birdphotos.com

One night a few weeks ago, just when we were getting ready for bed, an odor drifted up from the basement — one that is instantly recognizable and universally despised: skunk.  At first we thought the cat had unwisely cornered a member of the mephitidae family (a close relation of the polecat and weasel), but when I went downstairs to investigate, I encountered nothing but that overwhelming smell — as eye-wateringly potent and punishing as teargas. I’ve since learned that the skunk’s noxious scent and teargas are, in fact, both lachrymators — chemical substances designed to irritate the Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 11 Comments

Forcing bulbs

Photo: Patricia Aakre

There’s nothing quite as welcome in the middle of winter as the sight of blooming paper whites or hyacinths on a sunny windowsill. These bulbs, along with daffodils, tulips, narcissus, and others are easy to force into flower — though what you’re actually doing is tricking them into thinking that winter’s over. And who doesn’t wish for that about now? Watching sprouts push out of the homely little bulbs, shoot up, and explode in a fireworks of musk and perfectly formed flower heads — is to have a front row seat for one of nature’s most accomplished magic acts.

I purchased paper whites in bulk from my favorite on-line nursery (https://www.longfield-gardens.com which also has an excellent newsletter) and gave them away over the holidays with simple instructions: settle them in a tray or bowl filled with pebbles or dirt, give them some sun and water — and then practice patience, as they take several weeks to flower.
Hyacinths can be grown directly in water by using a forcing vase (shown below), kept in a cool dark place for Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 5 Comments

Journey of the Magi

Murillo's 'Adortation of the Magi' fragment

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’

Of the many subplots of the Christmas story, I’ve always been most drawn to that of the wise men. The bible doesn’t actually specify that there were three of them, just that they brought with them three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We don’t know for certain how many there were — Eastern Christianity has twelve or more in the caravan — or where they came from, though an Armenian tradition identifies them as Balthazar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 7 Comments

La Serenissima

Venice has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s a city I know well enough to be able to find my way along its cobbled streets and across its marbled bridges with the aid of memory alone.  There’s the Rialto rising out of the mist. A vaporetto puttering into its stop in front of the Accademia.  We spent many Christmases there —  when darkness fell like a velvet curtain and the lights of old palaces glittered in the inky waters. Though outwardly ostentatious and mercenary, Venice has always been a secretive and mysterious place. Many of its most stunning treasures are tucked away in unexpected places: the Carpaccio paintings in the tiny Scuolo San Giorgio degli Schiavoni; the tesselated marble floor, rich and intricate as an oriental carpet, mostly overlooked by the hordes being herded through the Basilica di San Marco; the mismatched pride of lions that guard the entrance to the Arsenale. At every turn, Venice is a visual feast, an alchemy of stone and light and water. And now, of course, far too much water. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 4 Comments

Taking down the trees

They were dead. Or dying. Two crab apples that had been strangled by vines.  A great old dark cherry, standing astride our back woods, that had been riddled by insects and then jackhammered by woodpeckers and sapsuckers for so many years that its insides had been Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 14 Comments

The Light of September

As the days grow shorter and shadows lengthen, the contours of the newly mown field and the sloping shoulders of the mountain ridge come into focus again. Summer’s exuberant abundance — the drifts of phlox and unruly ranks of wild flowers — has given way to a stricter, more measured order. Change is everywhere, though still as gradual as the shifting sunlight. It’s warm enough for the cosmos to keep blooming, but they’re aging beauties now, their desiccated flower heads nodding on thinning stalks. The morning birdsong — Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 8 Comments

Japanese eggplant

Sleek, thin-skinned, and mild, Japanese (Ichiban) eggplant is an entirely different animal from its larger, fleshier Italian cousin. Obviously, it’s not an animal, but eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, along with tomatoes and potatoes, and therefore classified botanically as a fruit. I put in half a dozen Japanese eggplants early this summer and have been rewarded with a sweet, succulent, almost seedless harvest ever since. Their leaves are a lovely dark green with purple veins, their stems a sticky dark purple, but it’s Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 10 Comments

Local peaches

These days you can consume most kinds of fruit any time of the year —apples in May, strawberries in November.  Many are shipped in refrigerated trucks and airplanes from around the world and can pass for fresh and edible. But peaches, the most delicate and succulent of stone fruit, don’t travel well.  It’s true that they can be trucked up from Georgia during July and August, but even then they’ll suddenly turn airy and tasteless as paper towel.  The best peaches are local (ours are coming from Germantown, New York), and we’re in that sweet spot— Continue reading

Posted in Blog | 8 Comments