Monday, August 3, 2015

A Garden Book Club


When a friend asked me if I would like to be in a garden book club, my answer was a resounding yes! After all, I have been collecting garden books forever but must admit to not reading any of my most recent finds, such as Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life, Virginia Woolf's Garden, and In the Garden with Jane Austen. Yes, I thumb through and read passages and drool over the photos, but don't read them from beginning to end. Not for lack of desire. In fact, I used to read a lot of garden books, especially when we were designing our garden. In recent years it seems that I read mostly novels and don't always make the time for a good garden book. But if I am reading it for a book club, I will get it done.

I don't mean garden how-to books. These books are obviously a must for anyone who gardens. The genre that has always interested me is garden literature -- the stories of people who create a garden -- who they were and why they did it. (Go here to read more) The story of the garden will often tell a bigger story since the creation of the garden yields so many personal rewards. First, there is the finished product -- a garden to experience and enjoy; second, the therapy of tending to it -- having the sun on one's back and being outside in nature; and third, sometimes finding the answers to life -- "Where you tend a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow."  

These books also contain practical information for gardeners: discoveries and knowledge, what worked and what didn't, the trials and tribulations of that particular garden. It's always interesting to learn about gardening in another part of the world. These are often garden tips we can apply to our own gardens. There is so much for the reader to learn. Our book group is starting with one of the most famous gardens in the world and its fascinating creator: Sissinghurst and Vita Sackville-West. The book is Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst, The Creation of a Garden by Vita Sackville-West and Sarah Raven. It contains many quotes from Vita's garden column that appeared in the Observer from 1946 to 1957.

Vita Sackville-West bought a dilapidated castle in the English county of Kent in the 1930's and set about restoring it. Everyone thought she was crazy. She was the only one who could see the promise in the ruins. The idea of restoring a castle appealed to her romantic imagination and was impossible for her to resist. She was enchanted by its Elizabethan history. As she set about restoring it, she also began creating her famous garden. I can imagine that the process calmed and grounded her while she lead her very tempestuous personal life.

An only child from an aristocratic family, she was disinherited from her childhood home Knole because she was a woman. The estate went instead to her uncle. She spent many years searching for a replacement. After her marriage to the politician Harold Nicolson, she found that replacement in Sissinghurst Castle. Their marriage was an unconventional one as they both had avant-garde attitudes towards marriage and monogamy. They had numerous extramarital affairs and yet remained devoted to each other and never divorced. Vita's most famous affair was with the writer Virginia Woolf. Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson tells the fascinating story of his parents' marriage.


The rose garden at Sissinghurst Castle

Vita was a gifted writer of poetry, novels, essays, travel books and, not surprisingly, a gardening column for the Observer. Many of Vita's books were published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf at the Hogarth Press. But her most famous legacy is the garden she created at Sissinghurst. I suggested that we also read one of her novels for our meeting and we chose All Passion Spent. I can't wait for our discussion in September. In the meantime I am enjoying Sarah Raven's book about Vita's garden.

My favorite passage so far is from the chapter called "Cram, Cram, Cram"

"In her planting, the filling and flowering up of her spaces, Vita had a clear and individual style. It is 'Cram, cram, cram, every chink and cranny,' she wrote on 15 May, 1955. You have plants popping up in the paths; you have plants trained over almost every square inch of wall; and where there's a gap, Vita encourages plants to grow in the walls. As she says of herself, 'My liking for gardens to be lavish is an inherent part of my garden philosophy. I like generosity wherever I find it, whether in gardens or elsewhere. I hate to see things scrimp and scrubby. Even the smallest garden can be prodigal within its own limitations...Always exaggerate rather than stint. Masses are more effective than mingies."

A garden tip I would like to apply to my own garden! 

Have you ever thought of starting a book club with a theme? I would love to hear about it.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Midsummer Favorites



How has your summer been? It's hard to believe it's almost August. I've gathered together a few of my favorite things from this summer so far. I'd love to know what yours are!

1. "Euphoria" by Lily King

My favorite book this summer is Euphoria by Lily King. Inspired by the life of Margaret Mead, it tells the story of a married couple Nell and Fen who are working as anthropologists in New Guinea in the 1930's. When they meet another young anthropologist and decide to work with him, a passionate love triangle occurs. This book tells two fascinating stories: one, about the lives of anthropologists working in the field in the 1930's and two, a dramatic love story that threatens the careers and lives of the three main characters. At only 257 pages, this book delivers a powerful punch with such efficiency. I loved its intensity and passion.

2. "Far From the Madding Crowd"

My favorite movie (it came out in May) is Far From the Madding Crowd. This sweeping, romantic tale is about the beautiful and independent Bathsheba, played by Carey Mulligan, and the three men who compete for her love. Apparently this is the only Thomas Hardy novel with a happy ending. The clothes that Carey Mulligan wears in the film are stunning and so well suited for a young Victorian heroine striding through the Dorset countryside! 

3. Tilda Swinton in "Trainwreck"

 The surprise comedic performance of the summer has to be Tilda Swinton in the film Trainwreck.
This movie is absolutely hilarious and its star Amy Schumer is a comic genius. But who knew Tilda had such comedic talent? Go here to find out how she transformed herself to look like this!

4. Hydrangeas from the garden

This year my hydrangeas have been amazing! It's been so much fun cutting them for arrangements.

5. Finding a new garden ornament

Whenever I go to Montecito, I stop at William Laman who carries the best garden accessories. This wooden obelisk reminds me of ones I've seen in gardens in England.

I also found this lantern at William Laman's

6. Garden plaque

A dear friend gave me this plaque for my birthday, which is going in the garden once I find a place for it. There's wisdom here, don't you think?

7. Aperol Spritz cocktails

We discovered these drinks when we were in Italy and have been making them ever since.

The recipe is simple:

Pour 4 oz. Prosecco into an ice-filled glass. Add 1 oz. Aperol liqueur and top off with club soda. Gently stir together. Garnish with orange zest and mint leaf. It makes the perfect summer aperitif.


8. Garden party inspiration

I haven't had a chance to post my photos from this year's Robinson Garden Tour.
As always, it was so inspiring. I loved this table set for a garden party.


9. Reading the New York Times Travel Section
Photo via here

In the summer this is always my favorite section of the paper and this summer it has not disappointed. Talk about creating wanderlust! There have been so many fabulous articles. I file them away in my travel notebook. This photo is from the article "Dorset, Thomas Hardy Country." I want to be there right now!


10. Rereading Tender Is The Night 

Summer is a great time to reread this classic set in the French Riviera. F. Scott Fitzgerald considered Tender is the Night his best work. And when you go back and reread it, you understand why. The writing is just beautiful. I had forgotten how sad this book is. And how glamorous. It conjures up the 1920's and summers in the south of France -- beaches, villas, and stylish Americans throwing fabulous parties. (Go here to read more about the connection between the Fitzgeralds and Cap d'Antibes.) It also contains one of my favorite dedications:

To Gerald and Sara Murphy -- Many Fetes

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Wishing you a summer filled with "many fetes"!


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Magical Scotland


 It's easy to fall in love with Scotland. There is such an abundance of beauty and charm.

There is the magical quality to the light

The picturesque harbors

The fairy tale houses

The dramatic skies

The ancient castles

The wonders of nature

Don't you just love a backpacker wearing a kilt!

In the first week of June, we travelled from London to Edinburgh and spent a week in Scotland. I am officially in love with this country. We divided our week between the Highlands and Edinburgh. I had to get my "Outlander" fix in the Highlands! And although we barely scratched the surface of either place (especially the Highlands since it rained most of the time) we were able to enjoy both the natural scenery of the North as well as the more sophisticated charms of the capital. Hailing from Los Angeles where it is always warm and often hot, I didn't mind bundling up in a jacket and scarf to go outside. Neither did I mind returning to a cozy hotel to while away some hours in front of a roaring fireplace. I wrote about it each day in my travel journal. Having just gone back to read my thoughts and observations about both places, I was struck by how much I loved Scotland. The Highlands and Edinburgh were both enchanting.

 Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh

We took the train from London to Edinburgh, an experience which I highly recommend. This is such an easy and elegant way to travel. The Waverley train station in Edinburgh is conveniently located right next to our hotel, the Balmoral, where we stayed for one night before traveling to the Highlands. You can see the clock tower of the Balmoral all over town, guaranteeing that you will never get lost. Did you know that the Waverley train station is named after the Waverley Novels by Sir Walter Scott? When I discovered this, I began to get a hint of how special Scotland was. I don't think there are any other train stations named after a work of literature!

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But we would be coming back to Edinburgh in a couple of days. After spending a restful night at the Balmoral, we were off to the Highlands the following day.

Inverlochy Castle

Where all of its magic began to reveal itself


We stayed at Inverlochy Castle located in Fort William, near Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis.



The 19th-century hotel overlooks a private loch and is set on a 500-acre estate

This was the view from our room. It seemed as if time had stood still in this part of the world.

Upon arriving we took a walk abound the property

And quickly discovered some special rooms in the hotel for sitting in front of that fire
The drawing room became a favorite place to have tea or a drink before dinner

The beautiful dining room serves breakfast and dinner each day

Crannog restaurant in Fort William

We had a lot of rain on this trip which meant we couldn't do many outdoor activities. In this kind of weather it was fun to go into the little town of Fort William to explore. One day I bought a copy of Jane Eyre from the local book store, little realizing what a perfect book it would be for this trip. Remember the first line? "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day." This was a wonderful book to read on the days it rained. That same day we discovered the charming Crannog restaurant on the water where we had a delicious lunch of smoked haddock chowder and a glass of white wine. It was a cozy place to while away a couple of hours and watch the boats sail by.


But on the day we took the ferry to the Isle of Skye the weather was beautiful

After a 30-minute ride on the ferry, we arrived at the Isle of Skye

Everywhere we looked was a picture postcard

This is the little village of Portree, viewed from the Cullin Hotel where we had lunch

Exploring Portree and its candy-colored cottages

More gorgeous views

Eilean Donan, a 13th-century castle set on a small island

Loch Garry


The Three Sisters mountain range was spectacular. I loved that there was still snow in June! On the way back to Fort William, we stopped to  look at Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Britain. It was also covered with snow and very dramatic.

Mountains, glens, coastlines and isles -- the natural beauty of the Highlands is simply staggering. Even on the grayest days, with a softly falling rain, the light is gorgeous. It is easy to understand   why so many films have been shot in Scotland. You just can't beat it for ambiance.



Back at the hotel cappuccino and hot tea never tasted so good! Of course the cookies didn't hurt...

It rained the rest of that afternoon and night, so we decided to stay in for dinner. After a restful night's sleep, we got on the road the next day and travelled back to Edinburgh where we would be staying for three more days.


On the way, we stopped at the House of Bruar. I wish I had more pictures, as this is the most amazing place. It is a multi-faceted shopping arcade in the middle of the Scottish countryside. In fact, it is advertised as "the home of country living." They have an extensive collection of Scottish products, including beautiful Scottish cashmere. We browsed through all the shops, bought a few gifts to take home, and ate a delicious lunch in their food hall. The smoked fish plate comes with thick slices of homemade brown bread and includes the best smoked salmon I have ever tasted. That was followed by shortbread and coffee. It was heaven. The first of the season Scottish strawberries (above) had just arrived and was a reminder that summer had come to Scotland.


Back in Edinburgh we were treated to some beautiful weather, the kind of weather that is a spectacular backdrop to this stunning city. The cloud-filled skies, gray stone buildings and emerald green spaces are a winning combination. Every vista looked like a painting. And since it doesn't get dark until 10:00 pm in June, there were many hours to enjoy all this beauty.

We walked and walked and walked; this city is wonderfully walkable!

The Royal Mile

Hollyroodhouse Palace, the official residence of the Queen when she is in Scotland.
This place is filled with so much history. Mary Queen of Scots lived here.


The chapel ruins

It could be the setting for a Gothic novel

The gardens at Hollyroodhouse Palace are beautiful

St. Giles Cathedral

This is where John Knox directed the Scottish Reformation. If you visit, be sure to see the Thistle Chapel which honors the knights of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle. The rib-vaulted ceiling and carved heraldic canopies are really something to see.

The Scottish National Gallery

Dunbar Close -- a secret garden in the middle of the city

We browsed through Waterstone's Bookstore on Princes Street

Had a drink at the Dome, a very elegant bar on George Street


And ate at several fabulous restaurants, including Rhubarb at Prestonfield House

Some other restaurants we enjoyed were The Witchery, Angels with Bagpipes and The Wedgewood. I love the names. Each place has incredible food and delightful Scottish ambiance.

Photo via here

We also went to Anta, a store in Edinburgh I have always wanted to visit. It carries superb Scottish woolen products, home furnishings, and ceramics all designed in tartan plaids. I bought a tartan throw as well as some dishes in the pattern shown above. I can't wait until they arrive so I can bring a little Scottish magic into my house.


Edinburgh is a city filled with beauty, elegance, enchantment and history. The ancient medieval buildings that are scattered around the city and the elegant Georgian streets and squares combine to make this an extraordinary place. It has such a sense of fun. Bagpipe players are around every corner. The people are friendly, the food is delicious, the museums and galleries are filled with great art, and the most elegant men are clad in tartan kilts.

 I fell in love with Scotland. This beautiful and wild country has been a muse to many writers and artists over the years and now I can understand why. I am so happy I went and can't wait to return. There is so much more to see.

A big thank you to Pamela Terry who writes the blog From the House of Edward. When I began to plan the trip, I knew she was the person to ask for advice. She is a lover of Scotland. Her reply was a beautiful little essay on the charms of Scotland that I will treasure forever!

Have you been to Scotland? Did you fall in love?