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I have just had a look at my blog for the first time since February. I am not the most dedicated of bloggers, obviously.

In doing so, I discovered that yesterday, 22 April, there were 85 views of my blogs about my work on Cecil Pinsent. This has made me curious as to WHY? Who are these people and what do they hope to find? The internet brings us together in a big community, but at the same time retains the anonymity of a big crowd.

So, today is too cold and rainy to garden, but I have more important things to do — namely sort through a trove of Pinsent documents that have just come my way. And just in the nick of time, too, as my book is about to go into layout, the final draft is finally final, and already the PR machine is oiling its gears. Among the treasures are a collection of photos of Cecil Pinsent to add to the half-dozen I have already, which have been part of my lectures since the first one I gave at a Pinsent seminar in 1993 at Villa Le Balze, Fiesole.

Pinsent’s photos and writings tell me so much more about him than the obvious record of his work and the circle of people and clients who became his friends and intimates. It also makes me wonder what this online life will leave behind? No troves of handwritten correspondences, no musty albums of photos that have been focused through the lens of an individual’s memories to serve as a catalogue of that life’s singular journey, that’s for sure.  Will we remain anonymous in the overcrowded archive of the digital world? I think so.

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Hurrah for Fat!

One of the enduring frustrations of living in the States again is not being able to purchase a piece of meat that is still attached to its bone, should the cut have been near one, or jacketed in its flavor-giving layer of fat. It, of course, has been excised for my own good. Whether I want it or not. So much for the pursuit of happiness.

For Christmas the Clarke family likes to dine on standing rib of beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, brussel sprouts. You get the Dickensian picture. So I went to a hightone grocery and asked for the joint of choice. Took it home, unwrapped it from its brown paper shroud, and lo and behold, the muscle had been separated from the ribs bones, the fat removed with surgical precision, only for these “trimmings” to be lashed back on with twine. Sigh.

Now, Martha Rose Shulman reports that fat is back on the menu…at least some fats. And it is quite the complicated business coming to that conclusion, as she reports at http://tiny.cc/w0yyr. But reassuring nonetheless.

So I will adhere (without twine) to my principle of moderation in all things.
Now please pass the bacon.

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“Today, when visitors first encounter the charm and elegance of Tuscan villas and gardens, they see what they want to see—Renaissance beauty—not recognizing that they are admiring is the work of a 20th-century English architect.  In 1986, I was one of these starry-eyed admirers, gazing out over the Florentine landscape in awe and ignorance, which was about to be remedied. It was my first visit, made in the mold of The Grand Tour, but rather than travel with a retinue in a horse-drawn carriage, I was with my husband and 6-year-old son in the family Volkswagen. It was a self-guided tour to improve and expand my knowledge of garden history; I arrived in Florence, clutching my copy of Georgina Masson’s 1959 classic, Italian Gardens, with Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and their Gardens written in 1903, as back-up, and managed to visit the highpoints. Villa Gamberaia, with its garden plan a perfect progression from light to dark, rustic to classical, left me speechless—and at my first sight of its famous water parterre I burst into tears. At the Villa Medici at Fiesole I became curious to learn more about the history of Italian gardens, because from its tiny giardino segreto, (secret garden), a true relic of the Renaissance, I caught a glimpse of another, even more charming garden, which I later learned was Villa Le Balze, and one of Pinsent’s earliest Florentine gardens.

That visit laid the foundations for my book The Gardens of Tuscany[1], and introduced me to Sir Harold Acton. We met in the salon of his home, Villa La Pietra. He sat in a rather dilapidated wing chair that was covered in faded silk damask. I perched on an armchair into which, in a more relaxed frame of mind, I might easily have slouched. Sir Harold was graciousness personified. I was tongue-tied. But then, serendipitously I mentioned that I was originally from Park Forest, Illinois. “But my mother was from Evanston!” he exclaimed. “I used to visit there regularly as a child, and adored Marshall Fields.” So, two expatriates found common ground, exchanging reminiscences about the Walnut Room (what would he think about Macy’s takeover and the loss of the Marshall Fields moniker, a byword for quality? He’d probably be as saddened and incredulous as I was).

During the interview, Sir Harold described how his father, Arthur Acton, designed garden surrounding the villa to be a showcase for his parent’s immense collection of classical sculpture and talked of garden design in Tuscany during the late Edwardian period. He mentioned that his father had consulted Cecil Pinsent about the addition of a small garden building at La Pietra, a project that was never pursued. Pinsent, he explained, was the architect of many of the villas and landscapes built by the Anglo-American expatriate community, which included some of the most notable members of the expatriate literati in Florence, and that these villas and gardens are today among the most admired in Tuscany. Sir Harold brought his palms together as if in prayer and resting his chin on delicately poised fingertips fixed me with a steady gaze. “You know,” he said, “You really ought to find out everything you can about Pinsent. So little about him is known with any accuracy.” You hold in your hands the results, to date, of that bit of advice. When someone of Sir Harold’s stature makes a suggestion, you’re well advised to listen.”

Sir Harold Acton walking in his garden at Villa La Pietra, 1986, by Ethne Clarke.

Excerpted from the introduction to my soon-to-be published book (by W. W. Norton), which has been in the works for at least six years, but I have an excuse since I did bring out a new edition of ‘Hidcote: the Making of a Garden’ and take on a full-time position as the Editor in Chief of Organic Gardening magazine, published by Rodale, Inc. and the first publication to introduce organic practices to American gardeners, some 70 years ago.

You also read about Cecil Pinsent’s Tuscan Villas and Gardens in “Cecil Pinsent and his gardens in Tuscany” papers from the symposium, Georgetown University, Villa Le Balze, Fiesole, 22 June 1995, which is the first place my biography of Pinsent and a thorough examination of his life and work was published by me, Giorgio Galletti, Vincent Shacklock and others.


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Working with plants and soil takes us out of ourselves and our daily rut, letting us connect not just with nature, but with our inner child. And goodness knows, in these straitened times we need to remember, and embrace, the simple joy of simple pleasures.

I’m about to move into a new house. It was built, solidly, in 1923. From the outside it looks huge, but inside, inspite of the tall ceilings, the rooms are comfortable; they have the proportions of humanism. They do not dwarf me; there is no entrance lobby, no cathedral ceiling, just nicely proportioned rooms. I think the survey says there are some 1600 square feet to inhabit. We can do that — some day my husband will join (relos are not easy).

But what struck me most about the place are the built-in closets. One 2ft-wide door opens onto a space maybe 4 feet wide and just deep enough for a clothes hanger not to be squashed.

At our house in Des Moines we transformed one bedroom (and not the smallest by any means) into a wardrobe room. An entire room for our clothes. For our stuff. Is this progress?

It’s the same with food. We are agonizing over the cost of childhood and adult obesity. It is costing the us millions…because we have to have our slurpy cups of the HFCS-based sodas, our MegaBurgers on Kingsize Buns. Pasta served in a bread bowl. Ever listened to people (or yourself) ordering coffee…whipped cream, flavored syrup, blah blah. I know this is a tired old record, but looking at the closets in my new home and remembering my mother describe rationing during WW2…it doesn’t take too many brain cells to figure out that less can indeed be more.

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The Iowa winter seems to have dragged on interminably. Perhaps it seems that way because I’m preparing to move and deadlines always seem so far off, until, that is, the few days before D-day, and then you’re left wondering, where did the time go.

Enough of this quasi-metaphysical mooning. I planted the garden in front of the house last fall. At last. After nearly six years in Iowa, I finally got serious about my personal landscape. We even put up a sexy — and expensive — fence to block the view of the neighbors’ lurid plastic playscapes and other outdoor paraphenalia — there are now trampolines in four of the six backyards that I can see from my deck. The fence helps, as do the redbuds, katsura, paperbark maple, cornus and parrotia trees that I planted as living screens. It’s all working splendidly, and now I’m leaving. There’s an old Chicago adage, “light a cigarette and the bus comes”. Well, I plant a garden and I move. England. Texas. Iowa. Dare I plant another garden in my new home?

However, at the same time as I ask myself that question, I am making plant lists of all the wonderful things I can grow now that I’ll be in Zone 6. For a start, I expect that bulbs will be more luxuriant in their flowering (perhaps I can start a bluebell wood?); here I lost more than I can count to the endless cycle of freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw. Fortunately, the snowdrops I brought back from Ireland have survived and will be traveling with me to PA.

These ruminations were brought more sharply into focus by Penelope Hobhouse’s column-long story in the April ’09 issue of The Garden, the journal of the Royal Horticultural Society.

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Titled ‘Starting all over again,’ Penny describes how not quite a year ago she moved back to Hadspen House in Somerset where she had gardened 30 years before,  leaving behind the widely acclaimed garden and home she’d made at Bettiscombe in Dorset, just five miles from the sea. That garden, she said, was designed for her retirement. Now, at nearly 80, another retirement garden is called for, and as you might expect from one of England’s leading garden authorities, it is being thoughtfully planned. But instead of describing the low-maintenance features she’s incorporated, Penny talks about her plans for experiments with marginally hardy plants and the tender treasures she has collected. She anticipates draping the walls of her new home with scented climbers, and then reveals her secret weapon; the huge glasshouse she will have, the very one that sustained Hadspen yard’s previous occupants, Sandra and Nori Pope. You can almost hear her hands clapping in glee as one of England’s premier plantswomen contemplates the opportunity her next move offers, to “extend my collection and knowledge!” I completely share her buzz.

Gardening is, after all, an enterprise rooted in tomorrow (and some would say  a triumph of hope over experience). We gardeners are a tough and adventurous lot, always wondering what lies over the horizon, reveling in newness and diversity, griping about the weather, the lack of time, the perversity of Mother Nature, but loving it all nevertheless, and eagerly anticipating the next season’s triumphs. It is, as I’m sure Penny would agree, what keeps us young — each new season is like starting all over again, nevermind moving house and climate zones.

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I have no doubt that improving my property is worth every penny spent. Especially in these down-turn times. Of course I want to spend my pennies in the garden—it’s what I do. But Himself would rather build shelves to hold his collection of CDs, which is really what he’d rather be investing in, because it’s what he does (write about music). But the way I look at it, CDs and books, you take ’em with you when you move, but the garden stays put. So it’s worth making it look terrific.

According to surveys done in the not too distant past, by august bodies like the National Gardening Association  and the National Association of Retailers, I learn that:

The average cost of landscaping is 5% of a property’s value, but can add up to 14% to its sale price. And a pretty garden can knock 6 weeks off the length of time it takes to sell.  20% of buyers say that landscaping is “very important” to them when considering a house purchase, and that trees alone add up to 7% to a home’s price. That’s all very well, but I rather suspect that landscaping to some means green lawns and evergreen foundation planting and would not mean the perennial border I planted last autumn under the front windows using a plan that Piet Oudolf designed for me to share with Trad Home readers, but which never made it into the magazine. It should look quite magnifique what with all the blues and mauves set off by splashes of shocking pink and blurs of white. Much if it was native, too, which will suit the Iowa zone. But, I digress….

More stats are just as impressive, because they’re about lowering utility use and cost. Planting shade trees on the south and west sides help to keep your home cool and can lower costs by up to 20%. Keep the aircon unit shaded too and increase its efficiency by 10%, and lower its use by 15%.  Now that is truly something we can all relate to; save energy AND money. Need I say more? I imagine not, other than to claim that’s my perfect excuse to put my money in the soil.  Ka-CHING!

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Oh goody! Quite a few months ago it was announced that there are three more planets in our solar system. That changed everything, and it continues. It seems that not a day goes by but what was once safe and familiar is suddenly a walk on the wild side. The things that made it possible to sit and slurp a cup of tea down while contemplating whether to wash the dog or check out the sales at TJ Maxx are constantly morphing into something dodgy.

There are nine planets. I can breathe easy. OOPS! no I can’t. One’s feathers get so easily ruffled..I must be getting cranky. It happened again today. Reading today’s emailed installment of Boggycreek Farm’s newsletter by Carolann reminded me to catch up on our government’s latest plan to protect us from our food. That would be NAIS, or National Animal Indentification System.

Yes, Dorothy, our ever vigilent government ag agencies want ALL farmyard beasts and fowls — and some not so barnyard — to be tagged, numbered, counted, interrogated (are you or have you ever been free range?).  I really fail to see just how that will protect us, other than providing jobs for the tech industry, which I suppose will keep them from developing yet more nefarious ways for us to harvest information…and waste time on line.

My love of chickens is legendary, and they all had names and lived into gracious retirements,  but more of that later. This business of naming our benign critters reminds of a time back when….(drifts into seamless reveries)

There have been other “you’re kidding, right?” moments in my life, of course. I mean, who hasn’t had the metaphorical rug yanked once or twice? And speaking of ruffled feathers, one of these goofy moments struck in garden in rural England some years ago…and may go some way toward explaining why I think birds are an essential ornament in the garden of life.

In my life as a junior journo, back in the day when I didn’t dare turn down a freelance job, no matter how paltry the pay (wasn’t it Dr. Johnson who wrote, “No man but a fool wrote but for money.”), because, of course, say NO just once, and you’ll never be asked to dance again. I digress…I was working on a book, my first as it happens, titled “English Country Gardens”. so there I was in an English country garden in deepest rural Surrey, south of London — pure Gertrude Jekyll territory — talking to this archetypal English granny…wispy white hair escaping from hairnet, saggy stockings around ankles above stout black shoes. Floral sprig dress and apron.

So, ordinary day in a pretty garden. We’re strolling round, admiring the herbaceous borders (where did these old dears get the energy from to manage 300 square feet of perennials, not to mention kitchen garden, orchard…it nearly kills me to struggle out of my deck chair to pluck a tomato off the vine). It was a PURRFICK day, as they say in south England, blue sapphire sky, fluffy white bits, gentle breeze, impossibly green hills, that garden…and I hear a parrot squawk. SCREEE-CH. Hullloo love. SCREEK. Hulloo lovely. Scree…

“There’s a parrot in your apple tree”

‘I know, dear. M’ nephew gave it to me to look after, poor old thing.”

And it was rather moth-eaten, in the way parrots get when they’re bored or stressed and have been plucking their feathers. Pathetic really, but clearly this little lady was doing her best to give it a happy retirement. Who wouldn’t be happy sitting in an apple tree all day?

“So, have you had it a long time?”

“No dear. just a few years. M’nephew, you see, he lives just over that hill there. Eric Clapton’s his name…he plays guitar. And the parrot was Jimi Hendrix’s, you see, and Eric took him when Jimi died, and now I look after him. Goodness knows what that bird’s seen.”

Probably a few extra planets, now and then.

Parts of this post first appeared as an editor’s blog on Traditional Home’s website as “Birds I have known, Part 1: Eric’s Bird”
Posted 8/16/2006 2:12 PM CDT

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