Indoor Gardening: A Happy Journey Through Winter.

The fashion for growing plants indoors is very understandably on the increase.  The lead had been given to us by the Scandinavia countries, where the climate must be more difficult to manage than our own, and where the inhabitants go to the most elaborate lengths to ensure a supply of living vegetation and greenery in their rooms throughout their long winter.  It is a pleasant fashion, and I hope it never proves to be ephemeral.

-Vita Sackville-West
November 14th, 1954

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Rather on the contrary to Vita’s fear, I think indoor gardening is on the rise.   I myself, don’t think I could live without the pleasure of gazing at my blooming houseplants all winter long.  I feel so blessed to have a collection that provides me with something at all times.  I no longer dread the coming of winter because I know my work indoors will begin.  Just because the roses are gone and the dahlias are dug up doesn’t mean I won’t have flowers.  In fact, I will have plenty.

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Forget fresh flowers in each room- what about live flowers instead?  With all the positive research which proves plants provide clean air for our stagnant wintery houses why wouldn’t one want a plant to bring some new oxygen and color?

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My love for flowers began with the cactus- if you can believe it.  They were inexpensive and there little pots did not impose on the limited space in our home.  However, as I was trying to roll myself out of a wintery funk, gazing upon one little cactus wasn’t good enough.  My broken spirit needed something more- something bigger than me.  Soon that little pleasure took the form of a therapeutic obsession which branched out into the interest of other plants and soon tramped off to expand itself outdoors.  I followed it willingly and found myself feeling the greatest pleasure.  I attached myself to a positive energy that spun all the heaviness away.


In the dead of winter, we can all get a little run down.  So when this happens, I venture off to my favorite place: Telly’s Greenhouse in Troy, MI.  Their collection of house plants is out of this world and the displays are nothing short of inspirational.  Stepping out of the cold and into their greenhouse (pictured above) one is immediately struck by the humidity and the most wonderful smell of wet dirt.  Find a nice greenhouse near you and make it your safe haven.

People tell me they kill cacti, succulents and orchids too.  I myself cringe at the times I threw phalaenopsis orchids away when their blooms died.  Not anymore.  I have one that has been blooming consistently (taking short breaks here and there), throwing up blooms since two years ago.  Don’t let anyone fool you, their care is not challenging.

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My latest achievement however, is getting my dendrobium to bloom this year.  I’ve been waiting two years and my hard work has finally paid off.  Since dendrobium’s and cacti need a drought period in order to bloom, they are such rewarding plants when they finally shoot up some color for you.  Indeed, they teach patience and perseverance.

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Sounds complicated and annoying to have to wait so long, but that’s the fun of it.  If you need a distraction or feel a bit heavy, get out into the garden and start with something simple.  I promise you, gardening can cure all mental ailments if you’re willing to be cured. Whether indoor or outdoor there is an endless amount of knowledge to learn and practice.  Be well this winter; allow the flowers to lift your spirit.

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Winter Rebels

It is amusing, and also useful as a record of what to plant now, looking forward to twelve months hence, to make a compact little bunch of what may be found flowering out of doors in this drear empty month.  Prowling round through the drizzle with knife and secateurs, I collected quite a presentable tuzzy-muzzy.

-Vita Sackville-West
More For Your Garden
Nov. 15th, 1953

If you’ve read my post What Is A Tussie-Mussie?  you’ll know Vita is referring to a small bouquet of mixed flowers – a sampling of one’s garden.  Now, since the frost has come and gone and come again, it is almost impossible to find any flowers now.  However, there are plenty of spent flowers remaining.  Flowers which stand, brown and suspended on their stiff spikes will make striking displays for drying.  I implore you to take up this challenge and see what you can find out of doors.  It is a wonderful reminder as one hunkers down for the winter to gaze upon the little dried beauties with hope – it is but only three months away.

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My mother is quite funny, sometimes she’ll come up with ideas that have us rolling with laughter.   As we sat in the last blaze of summer sun at her cottage we contemplated the coming winter and she vowed, in jest, she would, “defy the seasons”.  She came up with many hysterical instances on how she would do this and we had a good laugh.  However, now it’s getting serious.  It will snow soon!   My mother’s ironic humor resonates and I think she was right; there is no better way to “defy the seasons” than by going out to pick a bouquet of flowers as the blistering icy wind blows.

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As you take up this idea and venture out keep your eyes open and use your imagination.  For instance, my uncle once made a sculpture out of our dried sunflowers and their incredibly sturdy stalks.  As for me, for weeks I have passed by a grouping of dried garlic chives on my run.  I soon got it in my head that I must have them.  They were beautiful spikes with balls of delicate seeds that seemed to glisten in the sun.  One morning I asked the owner of the property if I could have some.  He said I could take what I needed. 
With the holidays coming or rather in America, we have already begun, sometimes it’s fun to find spent blooms on the more woody stems or perhaps pine cones and spray paint them gold or silver.  They look very good stuffed in a Christmas tree or placed in a table setting.
Don’t be shy.  If you happen to walk by and see, for several weeks, spent blooms which are failing to be clipped, ask the owner if you can take some.  It’s the holiday season after all; a season of giving.  I’m sure they would love to share the wealth.

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Garden For The Eyes-Write For The Ears

The watchers out on the grass could see the interior of the rooms illuminated by the savage glow.  The paneling of the hall had caught, and even as they looked they saw the canvas of a portrait give an extra little spurt of a yellower flame and flutter without its frame to the floor.  This was the odd thing to observe: the mingling of such small detail and Wagnerian holocaust.

Vita Sackville-West
The Easter Party; 1953

Since we are approaching winter it seems appropriate for one to think about hunkering down with some good books-or perhaps finishing that novel or collection of poems you’ve been working on.  Can I please then, for a moment talk about writing?  I just finished the most glorious little forgotten book.  As most old books are forgotten let us not forget Logan Pearsall Smith and his little book of reminisces, The Unforgotten Years.  Beautiful little piece of history.  I was excited to sit and read each weathered page of my old copy.

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There seems to be a lack of appreciation of good writing today.   It seems the style that has come into fashion is a very dry prose with an over use of BIG words.   In reality, by doing so and too often, they are only extracting the richness out of their descriptions.  When reading some of the modern works today.  It feels as though the heart is taken out of the prose.  The humanity, or the human condition is no longer a factor to be examined.

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Ironically Smith complains about this same thing occurring in his old age with youthful writers over one hundred years ago.   He says:

“The truth is that almost all that makes the reading of old books delightful is neglected by those who wield their steel nibs in the age of steel.  There were arts, there were blandishments, there were even tricks, which were intended to beguile the older generations, and which have succeeded in beguiling subsequent generations as well.  In the first place good prose used to be written, not, as it is written to-day, for the eye alone, but also for the ear.”

When read aloud your writing should sound as elegant as intended.  If the reader must stumble over ostentatious verbiage most of the time- your point will be lost.  You see what I did there?   At least in my humble opinion this is the case with writing today.

Now, back to the garden for it too must hunker down and get to work.  Like the roses which must turn their fine petals of silk into rose hips for the birds, you too must do this with your writing.  Give the world something to feed upon that will enrich as well as  caress the broken hearts and the lonely souls of this world.

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Bugbane: The Angel Of The *Fall*

Not often now, in my saddened old wisdom, do I get enticed by catalogue descriptions into ordering something which I know is almost bound to disappoint.  Yet from time to time I fall.  I do not regret this.  If one lost the capacity of falling, it would mean that one had passed from the trustful meadows of youth into the skeptical deserts of age, and that would be a pity for any gardener, since gardening is essentially a hopeful, optimistic occupation.

-Vita Sackville-West
February 7, 1954
More For Your Garden

Is she not amazing?  I fall deeper in love with her writing every time I pick up one of her books (I practically have them all).  Just when I think I have gotten use to her poetic prose and fanciful descriptions that waver between gardening and the meaning of life, I am struck again by her ability to encapsulate all that is true and meaningful beyond the garden itself.

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Yes I too make mistakes, or rather I’m sometimes disappointed with my choices.   This realization never happens right away however.   I think in most cases you just have to give it time.  For instance, I was unsure of my choice of the Bugbane or the Cimicifuga.   After a long spout of no luck in our shady front yard and after being told I would never be able to find any flowering plants for shade, I was pointed in the direction of the bugbane by a very knowledgeable nursery worker.  I was told it was slow to grow and that it may not flower for three years.

It was very small when I planted it.  I divided it into three or four other plants because the roots had grown so tight in the planter.  When I separated them with my clippers they faltered for a week or so but soon flourished and grew quite rapidly.  To my surprise, they did flower this year and I have the pleasure of seeing the beautiful blooms of the Cimicifuga, or if you would like to use its most recently changed name the Actaea Racemosa, during this time of the year when we gardeners thirst for a fresh surprise, a little color and a little fragrance.

 

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Speaking of fragrance, the Bugbane has an interesting one.  I would say it is that of sour vanilla, but it’s not exactly off-putting.  It rather draws the nose to its tiny white stamens again and again in order to pinpoint the scent exactly.

They like partial sun to shade and moist soil.  They are not picky about the nutrients or the acidity levels, they can flourish in all.   However, the more sun they get the more they will bloom, and the blooms will reach about 2-3 feet if not more.  I’m getting many blooms on mine and it is practically in full shade so that should tell you something.  Water them like you would any other new plant for the first year, then ignore them.  They are wild in their genealogy so given this fact they are more hardy and pest resistant like other wild plants.

 

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Bugbane has many names.  For instance, it is sometimes called black snakeroot.  Do not confuse the bugbane or black snakeroot with the white snakeroot.  The white snakeroot contains the toxin tremetol which causes tremors in cattle if ingested and if humans ingest the milk by an exposed animal or eat the meat they will get milk sickness.   It is known that Abraham Lincoln’s mother died of milk sickness when he was young.

The black snakeroot actually has many medicinal properties that frontiersman and Native American’s used.  It is said to repel bug bites, and help calm menopause and acne just to name a few.  However, I’d suggest going to your local drug store for the remedies of said afflictions.

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The bugbane is indeed the saving grace, an angel if you will of the autumn and I too was victim to the “fall” as Vita explains, but I have yet to be disappointed.  I will wait, and in the spring I will spread the plants out to create more of a happy crowded appearance mixed with the astilbe I mentioned in my post Astilbe & The Romanovs.  Since its leaves are still green and the astilbe look dead (which I hope isn’t the case) adding these to the mix would add interest and color for all seasons.  When they really get going they will be gorgeous.

Larry Hodgson describes in his book, Making the Most of Shade that planted in numerous groups, the bugbane will present a striking show – like roman candles set against their dark green foliage shooting up toward the sky.  I will do my best to reproduce this effect for you and all passersby in the coming years.

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In Themes Of War…

Honour the gardener!  that patient man
Who from his schooldays follows up his calling,
Starting so modestly, a little boy
Red-nosed, red-fingered, doing what he’s told,
Not knowing what he does or why he does it,
Having no concept of the larger plan.
But gradually, (if the love be there,
Irrational as any passion, strong,)
Enlarging vision slowly turns the key
And swings the door wide open on the long
Vistas of true significance.

-Vita Sackville-West
The Garden; 1946

I love Vita’s poetry.  It took me awhile to like poetry and even still sometimes it’s hard for me to understand.  I think in order to love poetry one must know the author and the times in which they wrote.  Vita loved her garden.  Her compilation of poems The Garden cover all four seasons.  However, there is one recurring theme which trickles in every now and then.  It is that of the second World War.  I’m sure she had written these poems in the last year of the war at least.  When the poems were published in 1946 there was still a residue of it in England at this time.  If one reads carefully it is there, quiet but ever-present…

“Yet shall the garden with the state of war
Aptly contrast, a miniature endeavour
To hold the graces and the courtesies
Against a horrid wilderness.  The civil
Ever opposed the rude, as centuries
Slow progress labored forward, then the check,
Then the slow uphill climb out of the pit,
Advance, relapse, advance, relapse, advance,
Regular as the measure of a dance;
So does the gardener in little way
Maintain the bastion of his opposition
And by symbol keep civility;
So does the brave man strive
To keep enjoyment in his breast alive
When all is dark and even in the heart
Of beauty feeds the pallid worm of death.”

Did you hear it?  The themes of war?

She speaks of it often in her writings.  She describes gardens abandoned or neglected in the years of war.  She talks about rose bushes, relinquished for that time being, growing wild because they had not been pruned and were more beautiful than ever before.

But for the purpose of this post I’ll speak of a different type of war.  Sometimes I feel like preparing for winter is akin to preparing for war.  Protect those you love as the blistering winds are upon us.  In other words, it is time to shut one’s garden down.   The frost will come soon.  So save those that may still bloom behind the comfort of glass on your windowsill, and clip those you can dry.  A reminder of the summer sun will remain in the dehydrated petals for you to gaze upon all winter long.

I have clipped my sweet woodruff to dry for Christmas sachets.  It hangs for now in my kitchen as you can see below.  In my post Short and Sweet Woodruff I explained that if you clip sweet woodruff in autumn and dry it, it will make lovely sachets that smell like freshly cut grass all winter.  Vita mentioned keeping one under her pillow to capture the scent while she slept.

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Similarly, I dried the lavender and my astilbe spikes.  I talked about astilbe in my post
Astilbe & The Romanovs.   I’ll use the astilbe in vases around my house to add interest to a space.  The lavender however will be crushed with the sweet woodruff and stuffed in the Christmas sachets.  I love homemade Christmas gifts.

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The one cut flower that will dry amazingly is the zinnia.  Since we’re getting very close to a heavy frost I will cut them all.  It pains me to do so since some have yet to bloom.  But the bud stage actually produces a very interesting dried specimen.  Also hydrangea are very interesting too.

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So go out and save a bit of your garden before it’s too late.  You’ll applaud your own resourcefulness.   When times get a little too dreary this winter always think about next year’s garden, entertain yourself with fantasies and possibilities.  Think of the most outrageous thing you can do and make it happen!

“…But gradually, (if the love be there,
Irrational as any passion, strong,)
Enlarging vision slowly turns the key
And swings the door wide open on the long
Vistas of true significance.”

A good gardener is not afraid to experiment.

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Above: My Experiment: Morning Glory in a vase.  Do you think these buds will open?

Inspire us, in what ways have you experimented lately?

This Morning…

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Dahlia: A Nuisance

…a dahlia is a nuisance, because its tubers have to be lifted in autumn, stored in a frost-proof place, started into growth under glass in April, and planted out again at the end of May.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958


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I had no idea what a dahlia was when my husband brought home a bag full of tubers one Spring afternoon.  He had been working on a road project that day and an old Italian man gave him a tour of his garden.  He had brought his dahlia tubers from Italy.  They had been split numerous times since I’m sure, but the DNA from the original remained. I had no idea what would pop up when my husband showed me the long ugly tubers, which I thought looked more like spindly potatoes.  The old Italian man warned Bryan that the tubers must be planted in the ground that week or the flowering will come too late.

I thought I would dig a deep hole and plop the tubers in like some sort of bulb.  No sir!  Like magic, Bryan saw the old Italian man again that week.  Like a wise shaman of flowers he informed my husband that the Dahlia tubers should fear no risk of frost because they are taken out of the ground directly after flowering and put in box of peat moss and placed in a warm spot for the winter.   He went on to explain that because of this the tubers do not have to be planted very deep.  In fact, the tubers like to be just a couple inches below the surface.  Instead of planting the long ugly things vertical like one would suspect and would be the easiest task, one must instead dig a horizontal hole and lay the tuber inside like one would a casket.  This is precisely why they are considered a nuisance and I almost resented the Italian gift, but the flowers are so beautiful it’s worth the trouble.  So every fall we exhume the ugly tubers from their resting place and follow the advice of the wise old Italian.

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Yes, it’s true the tubers are very ugly indeed and looking at it one might think in fact they all should be buried like little caskets because they look to be dead.  I myself threw one unremorsefully into the vegetable garden thinking the last growth had sucked the life out of it.  But to my surprise, my son found it growing amongst the vegetables happy as a clam.  I have since transplanted it into my garden and it is now the biggest, healthiest of the lot. Don’t be fooled by those ugly little tubers, the flowers they produce are one of the most striking flowers of all, in my opinion.  They are related to the zinnia and they have the long lasting quality of keeping itself fresh in water, and I’ll bet they dry nicely too although I haven’t tried.  Perhaps I’ll cut one and see; as Vita always says, “a good gardener is one who makes experiments”.

They are somewhat of a nuisance though, because they can not be forgotten as a perennial or a bulb would be.  Because of our cold climate, they must be raised up out of the ground and stored

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Vita’s Wish For Nasturtium…

What about Tropaeolum speciosum, the flame nasturtium, with brilliant red trumpets among the small dark leaves?  This is the glory of Scottish gardens…

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden
November 24, 1946

Something rather peculiar happened when I was planning my garden back in April.  I knew I wanted to plant seeds, two in particular; the zinnia and the morning glory.  But a picture of a brilliant red flower caught my eye so I picked up the packet to examine it.  I had never seen nor heard of the nasturtium before.  However, I didn’t want to bother with new seeds I knew nothing about so I put it back…or so I thought.

I came home that day and discovered the packet in my purchase bag as if Vita herself had put it there.   I took this as her spirit coaxing me to try them.  I carried her spirit with me a lot in those early days of spring, unsure and uneducated in the way of gardening.  But she helped me very much, and I do believe this was her way of coaxing me along to experiment.   So I did.

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They soon came up in these cute little clumps of lily pad-like leaves and they grew and multiplied; covering the ground, expanding and taking over my bare areas where I needed the extra growth.   I love the leaves with their defined veins reminiscent of exploding stars, and the tiny flowers hide inside their abundance as if they were a secret.   My Grandma came over and noticed them.  She told me that her mother, my Great Grandmother use to grow nasturtiums all the time.  This I never knew.  However, I waited a long time for them to flower.   They took all summer to do so, but they are lovely!  They are indeed like flames among the green, coming in bright orange and brilliant red.

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The other day I experimented by clipping a few of the flowers for a vase.   Although they didn’t last more than a week it was a good opportunity to see the flowers close up and get a whiff of their delicious scent, which is like a delicate baby powder.  They are so low to the ground one would have to get on one’s hand and knees to smell them.  I’ve often thought that next year I should try them in pots.  That way I can move them around to my liking and have them burst and melt over the sides of the pot.  They will also be at eye and nose level for my ultimate delight.   I do recommend these curious ground loving plants. Go ahead and grow something different.  As Vita would say, “Try“.

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Just In Time For Tea

The marvel of Peru, Mirabilis jalapa, is familiarly called four o’clock, because it opens only at tea time and shuts itself up again before breakfast.   It is an old-fashioned herbaceous plant, seldom seen now, but quite decorative with its mixed coloring of yellow, white, red, or lilac, sometimes striped or flaked like some carnations.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening
1958

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Indeed, the four o’clock flowers show themselves every afternoon and until morning, then shut themselves away again. I suppose they are conserving themselves for the next show.  It’s rather intelligent of them to expel their energy only after the blaring heat of the sun has gone.

I’ve found that mine don’t open until dusk.   They’re scent is subtle, but increases as it gets dark. It is a sweet fresh scent that I can’t really describe specifically.   Next time I happen to catch it wafting through the humid night air I’ll do my best to detect it.   You can cut it, the blooms will open for you.  But to get its second bloom, one must be diligent to trim the stem every few days to keep it fresh.

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I planted them last year.   My Grandma had given me some left over seeds and I thought I should try them.  Assuming they were annuals, as told to me by the package, I planted a few seeds to try my luck, jam-packing them in a neglected corner.  They came up yellow that August.  Not that impressed, as yellow was not my favorite color last year, I vowed not to plant them again and didn’t give them much thought after that.

Imagine my surprise when the pesky things found their way into my garden this year!  I failed to take note of their self-seeding quality.  Happy in their random places they have found for themselves, they are popping up everywhere in the most unexpected nooks and crannies.  But a couple pink plants have emerged!  Magenta we’ll call it, as my daughter argues it has a purple tinge.  I rather like the places they’ve turned up.  They seem to keep politeness and punctuality about them – showing themselves on schedule every day and not treading on my rose bushes or my other coveted plants.  Perhaps they know best as they’ve shown up in spots that were left bare by me and now my garden has filled out in a lovely way.

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What Is A Tussie-Mussie? 

A dear neighbor brought me a tussie-mussie this week.  The dictionary defines tuzzy-muzzy, or tussie-mussie, as a bunch or posy of flowers, a nosegay, and then disobligingly adds that the word is obsolete.  I refuse to regard it as obsolete.  It is a charming word; I have always used it and shall continue to use it, whatever the great Oxford Dictionary may say…

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden
February 26, 1950

The other night I set off to visit a friend.  We would share a bottle of wine and some conversation. According to the old rules of etiquette, one should never go to a friend’s house empty handed.  But what does one bring for a casual visit between friends when the wine is already supplied?  Having no time to venture into a store, I thought about my garden.

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 A garden gives us an abundance of thoughtful gifts throughout the summer.   And when summer is the time most people are out visiting neighbors and friends it seems the perfect setup.  There would be nothing better, in my opinion, than someone sharing a bit of their garden with me.

Vita has mentioned the gift of a tussie-mussie. I would consider a tussie-mussie a sampling of one’s garden, a bouquet of you will, that represents all that is in bloom at present.

So next time you’re to visit a friend, choose instead a gift from your garden, instead of purchasing an object of superficiality.   Rather, you’d be better off saving your money to buy more seeds, because best gifts are the ones nature brings.  

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Expeditions: MICHIGAN SUMMER

I write this note far from home, on a not unenviable expedition which involves wandering round other people’s gardens.

-Vita Sackville-West
August 17th, 1947
In Your Garden


This summer we have done our usual expeditions.  We have gone to the family cottage a couple times on the East side of the state, and also to my Mother’s condo retreat on the West side.  Some have their preference.  Each side offers different things.  First, if you’re a sunset and wine person, the west side is where you’ll likely go.  If you’re an early riser and the sunrise is your thing then you’ll want to be on the Lake Huron side. But you can get amazing sunsets on the east side too.   Our cottage on the east side of the state faces the west on a small inland lake.

It’s very laid-back, very fisherman friendly. It’s very affordable so you’ll get people from all walks of life.  Every restaurant up there is a total dive, but that’s why we love it.  You can relax as no one puts on airs.
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There are numerous scenic outlooks and secret places…

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Foote Dam ^  Oscoda, MI

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Lumberman’s Monument ^  People climb this sand dune.  I prefer to sit at the top in the shade with a wine and cheese picnic watching everyone’s struggle.  It’s a fun show.  This looks over the Ausable River which is the river used for the World Famous Ausable Canoe Race.  The race includes participants from all over the world.

And my favorite spot in this magical place…Iargo Springs.  To see the natural springs one must climb down hundreds of steps.  Deep under the canopy it’s amazing.  Pictures do not do it justice.  I always wish this was my back yard.

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Indian Pipe^ the only place I’ve seen it growing.  It’s just dark and moist enough for this strange plant.  It lacks chlorophyll and instead gets its nutrients from decaying plant matter.

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Ausable River^

Now, the west side of the state…

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Every night we would walk down the beach with a glass of wine and watch the sunset.  People gather for the big show.  I want to move up there just so I can see this every night.  It’s all I need.  
The wineries are also spectacular and I wish I would have taken my camera to get some shots but I was too distracted by the wine itself to think about it.  One must live without remembering their phone constantly, yes?   When it comes to wine, Michigan excels in two varieties, Riesling and Cabernet Franc.  I will go head to head with any snobby wine connoisseur that wants to argue this fact.   One can actually taste Michigan earth in these wines.  The peppery flavor of the reds is our signature.

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Also Cherries are huge, Balaton is my favorite cherry wine from The Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor, MI.  Glen Arbor has been featured in Country Living magazine and Food and Wine Magazine for its quaint artsy vibe.  It is indeed one of my favorite places on the planet.
The west side is also known for its sand dunes that look over the turquoise Glen Lakes and Lake Michigan…

IMG_1863I dare not venture down this one either.  It can take up to two hours to climb back up!

Rocks are amazing along the beaches.  Petoskey stones and Leelanau Blue are the most coveted.
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(Photo courtesy of Meggen Watt Photography)

People have vacationed here and stayed.  One of these days I’m going up there and never coming back.  It’s really the most beautiful place, you should come and see for yourself.  I consider myself very lucky to live is such a wonderful versatile state.