May 1st –Maypoles,
floral wreaths and garlands,
small vases of first flowers.
Bursts of color.
“Spring — an experience in immortality.” – Henry D. Thoreau
Faded grasses, gray skies, a myriad shades of bare branches. The colors of January are, for the most part, soft and muted. Such colors lined the walkway of New York City’s High Line, an elevated park built on an old train line, on a recent early morning walk.
I was struck by how the earthy colors of the leaves and branches blended with the brick of different buildings.
Other times bursts of color stood out, as with the red berries against a bare wall,
the coppery branches set among the evergreens, and a few splashes of yellow.
An unexpected pleasure was coming across one of the “En Plein Air” art installations that enliven the Highline — “Four Arches” by artist Sam Falls.
A simple walk through the four slender arches provides a subtle thrill, perhaps coming from the delicacy of plant life depicted on the arches. The colors of the painted leaves and flowers blended with the muted quiet of the day. Understated and elegant, the arches seem perfectly situated for the High Line.
The plaque next to the installation explains why the design so resonates with its surroundings. Falls created “four ceramic archways supported by the steel tracks from the High Line’s original railway, each of which is dedicated to a different season in the park. For one year, Falls collected plants from the High Line, embedded them in ceramic, and fossilized them with colorful pigments.”
The linearity of the gray steel rails and the painted plant life complement each other in an unexpected way. The artwork is a collection of oppositions: the rails are durable, rigidly straight, industrial and functional; the depictions of plant life are delicate, airy, colorful, organic in shape, and decorative. The nearly hundred-year-old rails contrast with the seasonal ephemeral plants.
The installation is so slender and unobtrusive that you could easily miss its intricacies, especially when the High Line becomes crowded at midday, or if you are engaged in conversation or taking in the views of the city. From a distance “Four Arches” is one thing — an angular walkway set among the other angles of the surrounding buildings.
Close up, it becomes a seasonal garden of gorgeous colors and shapes,
full of individual compositions which must have involved countless decisions for the artist: How to present such variety? How best to portray the delicate flowers, leaves, and grasses? Which plants should be placed at eye level, and which will work on the top horizontal beams? How to represent the seasons? Which colors work best together?
“Four Arches” is a welcome garden on a gray January morning.
Chances are you’ve seen them alongside a barn, in front of a cute cottage-style house, or gracing the front of a white picket fence. This old-fashioned pass-along plant has absolutely caught the hearts of many.” (/www.bhg.com)
“Alcea rosea, the common hollyhock…was imported into Europe from southwestern China during, or possibly before, the 15th century…From Middle English holihoc (holy mallow).” (Wikipedia)
As for marigolds, poppies, hollyhocks, and valorous sunflowers, we shall never have a garden without them, both for their own sake, and for the sake of the old-fashioned folks who used to love them. — Henry Ward Beecher
Certain flowers reappear in my book series, Christmastime, especially for scenes set on Kate’s farm in Illinois. Hollyhocks and lavender, in particular, make an appearance during Lillian’s visits to the farm. Below is an excerpt from the final book, which will be available later this year.
Excerpt from Christmastime 1945: A Love Story, from the “Epilogue: Summer 1948”
A beautiful summer day spread over Kate’s farm. A light breeze carried the fragrance of freshly mowed hay, honeysuckle, roses, and tiny green and floral scents released by the sun’s warmth. White butterflies flitted and landed among the flowers, along with a few dragonflies that briefly hovered and then disappeared. A perfect day, thought Lillian. She sat in the shade of the old oak tree, using her watercolors to capture the profusion of hollyhocks that grew alongside the barn.
Lillian added a few more leaves to the hollyhocks, and then rinsed her brush. She saw Ursula strolling up the country road, returning from one of her solitary walks. Ursula paused to inhale the fragrance of the mass of honeysuckle covering the fence – then she picked one of the small yellow flowers, pinched the bottom off, and tasted the drop of nectar at its base. In her hand she held a bunch of wildflowers.
Ursula walked over to Lillian. “Hello, Aunt Lillian.” She tilted her head to study the painting. “How lovely.”
“I’ve tried to capture their charm,” said Lillian, standing back to view the canvas.
As always, Lillian was struck by Ursula’s beauty that only deepened with the years. Ursula wore a deep blue and purple floral dress that caught the color of her eyes and flowed around her slim figure. Her long hair blew in the summer breeze, revealing her amethyst earrings.
“Simple hollyhocks,” said Ursula. She offered to hold the painting as Lillian gathered her supplies and collapsed the easel. “You’ve captured them exactly – and yet added something. You’ve lifted them and made them even more beautiful. A piece of summer to be treasured.”
Lillian smiled at the comment. “I’ve always loved hollyhocks. An old-fashioned flower. Always leaning towards the sun and blooming in such happiness.” She looked again at the tall stalks abloom with color, tapering off to small buds not yet open. Rising from lush green leaves, flowers of pale pink with dark centers, soft yellow, deep purple, white, bright pink. “Quaint and lovely. Especially growing against the barn like this.”
Christmastime 1945: A Love Story, the final book in the Christmastime Series, will be available in the fall.
“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” – Marcel Proust
“April… hath put a spirit of youth in everything.” – William Shakespeare
“There is no glory in star or blossom till looked upon by a loving eye; There is no fragrance in April breezes till breathed with joy as they wander by.” – William Cullen Bryant
“Break open A cherry tree And there are no flowers; But the spring breeze Brings forth myriad blossoms.” – Ikkyu Sojun
“In the cherry blossom’s shade there’s no such thing as a stranger.” – Kobayashi Issa
“The April winds are magical.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Our spring has come at last with the soft laughter of April suns and shadow of April showers.” – Byron Caldwell Smith
In The Garden House, Miranda’s friend and neighbor, Paula, is the owner of several gift shops. They are filled with vintage jewelry, antiques, and old china from flea markets, garage sales, and estate sales, as well as a few hand-crafted items.
Throughout the year, Miranda contributes wreaths and bouquets from her garden to add to Paula’s displays,
and at certain holidays, like Valentine’s Day, she creates mini-bouquets to be given as gifts.
Valentine’s Day is Miranda’s favorite time of year to shop at Paula’s gift stores. She always discovers some small treasure to add to her home,
or to give as a gift, especially to her daughter, Clara.
Paula’s shops offer a sense of discovery, and delight in adding small touches of beauty to the home.
“The sun shone on the garden, thick with late summer flowers and early autumn blooms.”
Though most of the story of The Garden House takes place over summer, the book ends with the beginning of fall, and a sense of change. I imagine the main character, Miranda, strolling through her garden at this time of year, gathering a few autumn leaves that have fallen to the ground and clipping blooms for displays around her home.
She would use certain flowers and berries and turn them into wreaths,
or pair them with candles to create a cozy fall ambiance.
Most of the cut flowers would become arrangements that Miranda would place on bookshelves, counters, and tables throughout the house, with one special bouquet for the dining table.
I imagine her preparing one of her special meals for her children who would visit over the weekend, or perhaps her friends next door would stop by for dinner.
Miranda would add leaves and moss, or branches of berries and a few apples to the dining table to give it an autumnal feel.
And if the weather was mild, she would choose to have dinner under the trees on her beloved deck.
As the autumn days grew cooler, Miranda would take a moment in her garden to curl up on a bench with a shawl, or find just the right spot to enjoy a cup of hot cocoa and good book.
Beauty. Meaning. Books.
Transformation, rebirth, a visionary rebuilding, weaving the old with the new — words that come to mind on viewing the High Line park on the west side of mid-Manhattan. What was once a rusty, weedy, abandoned railroad segment of a freight train line, is now a verdant, blooming public park with spectacular views of the city, and ever-changing artwork.
The elevated park, which opened in 2009, runs 1.45 miles between 14th Street in the Meatpacking District (another transformed neighborhood) and 34th Street.
Above the noise and traffic and bustle of the streets below, the High Line provides a calm respite, an opportunity to walk through the city without all the stop and go of the traffic lights. Running through the park is a relaxing walkway with remnants of the rail tracks still visible in the landscaped swaths of flowers, grasses, and trees.
There are various places to gather with friends, and seating that overlooks the Hudson River and the streets of Manhattan.
The park provides great viewing points from which to see the architecture of the West Side, new and old New York sitting comfortably side by side. To the north stands the Hudson Yards Project — a cluster of gleaming buildings towering high above the city. Further down, the ultra-modern architecture of Frank Gehry’s IAC Building and the new Whitney Museum stand among the lower brick buildings of a much older Manhattan. And the Empire State Building can be seen from various points.
At end of day, small recessed lighting softens the park, and from one of its many benches you can catch the setting sun glinting off the windows of Manhattan, or watch the sun sink slowly over the Hudson River.
Though there are many colors of summer, yellow — bright and cheerful — stands out as the emblematic color of the warmer months. Perhaps because it’s the color of the sun and sunflowers, dandelions and lemonade, and other associations with hot summer days.
“Indicating sunshine during the Renaissance to being one of the primary colours of Cubist art, yellow finds an intrinsic place in literature, allegory and symbolism.
Representing light, hope, happiness, and wisdom, yellow is meant to evoke optimism or natural light with an airy, radiant atmosphere. ” — http://www.architecturaldigest.com
“How wonderful yellow is. It stands for the sun.” — Vincent Van Gogh
“Few artists in history have been known for their use of yellow, though J.M.W. Turner and Vincent Van Gogh are the most notable exceptions” — most famously, Van Gogh’s depictions of the sunflowers and fields of Arles, and Turner’s “sublime and sun-lit seascapes.” http://www.artsy.net
“We find from experience that yellow excites a warm and agreeable impression….The eye is gladdened, the heart expanded and cheered, a glow seems at once to breathe toward us.” — Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
“The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.” — Wallace Stevens
“The road to the City of Emeralds is paved with yellow brick.” –L. Frank Baum
Long summer days mean that we can spend more time out of doors. And one of the best places to linger in the summer twilight is in a lovely garden. There’s something about candlelight and dinner in the garden that is absolutely magical.
Though I can count such dinners I’ve experienced on one hand, they stand out in my mind. Some memories shine more than others, like tiny jewels in an inner treasure chest — clearer, sharper, more durable.
One such memory is of an impromptu dinner I once had with friends in Seattle. A guest was visiting from Switzerland and we decided to have our dinner outside, just beside the flower garden.
We pulled out the kitchen table, draped it in a lace tablecloth, and added details to make the dinner even more special — fresh flowers from the garden, antique water goblets and an Art Deco silverware set that belonged to my grandparents, and a tiny salt and pepper set — green and white enamel owls. One of my roommates, who was attending a culinary arts school, created a sumptuous meal full of summer freshness — I remember a cold blueberry soup with creme fraiche swirled on top and a salad with orange nasturtiums from the garden.
I never made the connection before, but surely that evening found its way into my novel The Garden House, which is set in Seattle. There’s a scene where the main character, Miranda, sets a beautiful table on the garden deck and enjoys a lovely summer evening with her husband and a few friends.
The Italian poet and author Cesare Pavese said, “We do not remember days, we remember moments.” I wouldn’t be at all surprised if those words came to him as he sat in a summer garden at evening.
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Hydrangeas, emblematic of summer, come in a wide variety of color, size, and shape, making them among the most versatile of shrubs. The flowers can be small or large, round or cone-shaped, in colors ranging from the familiar blue, pink, purple, and white to the more unusual red, pistachio, and strawberry.
Hydrangeas are widely used throughout the United States — in the Pacific Northwest,
and the Midwest and South.
“The hydrangea was first cultivated in Japan [famous for its hydrangea forests],
but ancient hydrangea fossils dating back to 40-65 million years ago have been discovered in North America. Hydrangeas didn’t appear in Europe until 1736 when a colonist brought a North American varietal to England.” http://www.proflowers.com
Today, throughout Europe, hydrangeas can be found gracing doorways, fences, windows, and tables.
“Having been introduced to the Azores, hydrangeas are now very common, particularly on Faial,
which is known as the ‘blue island’ due to the vast number of hydrangeas present on the island.” http://www.en.wikipedia.org
Hydrangeas are often planted in clusters where they form walls or hedges, providing dramatic swaths of color.
There are also climbing versions that can be used to adorn the side of a house or garden trellis,
and potted hydrangeas can offer an interesting touch to gardens and doorways.
One of the most spectacular uses of potted hydrangeas is found on the grounds designed by Furlow Gatewood in Georgia. He lined the driveway there with shades of potted blue, creating a work of art that is utterly magical — elegant, wistful, and dream-like.
An added benefit of hydrangeas is that they are easy to dry and can be used in wreaths and arrangements to bring a touch of summer to the winter months.
Voluptuous, homey, elegant, humble — the colorful hydrangeas of summer offer the gardener an artist’s palette of possibilities.