Lilactree Farm Garden Notes, No. 2, 2017: Lily Beetles, Weatherland, and A Very Early Spring

– Posted in: Book reviews, Lilactree Farm, Pests, Plagues, and Varmints

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‘[John Donne’s] weathers were always those of body and mind. His sun was a lover, a human mistress, to whom the burning star in the sky was “a lesser sun”. Vapours were those given off by the loving heart; rain was the feverishly imagined liquefaction of  flesh and soul.’ ~ Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies.

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Most discussions of lily beetles are a little helpful and considerably depressing. Many gardeners have abandoned growing lilies because the battle against the beetles is time- consuming and messy. But may I suggest that if (a) you have lots of free time (as I do) and (b) are willing to get some blood on your hands (as I am) that all is not lost. Many  hundreds of lilies grow here so you will understand that we have a major  interest in this problem. Here are some suggestions.

LBs do not like to get up early nor stay up late; not much point in sailing into the garden at dawn or dusk. Nor are they fond of cold weather, so you can stay inside with a book when it’s unpleasant for you, as for them. Don’t worry if you lunge for a beetle and miss it. True, it will disappear, but my experience suggests a heart-warming conclusion: a fallen beetle is as good as dead, and will rarely, if ever, return to attack that lily. For reasons that probably have much to do with my eyesight, LBs congregate Fritillaria imperialisalong paths and walkways where they are easily detectible and accessible; they appear to enjoy – up to a certain point – human company.

What I believe critical is to go after them before they are comfortable. I see very little of the disfiguring mess that is described in many reports and I think that is because I tackle the beetles when they first appear (typically on fritillarias, especially the Crown Imperial, Fritillaria imperialis,[1] though other species, such as F. pallidiflora, below, are not exempt).

In cool spring sunlight they are often somnolent and can be picked off with a confident, swift movement. Later, as they become more elusive, I adopt a slightly different technique, which is to slide firmly my first and second fingers on one hand around the lily stem below where the LB is sitting so that should I miss it with my other hand it cannot fall to the ground but falls, wriggling, somewhere in the palm of my hand or between my fingers. It is crucial then that you abjure all sentimentality, that you forget about plunging the poor creature (it means no ill) into soapy water or beer suds or maple syrup, but that you swiftly bisect it with a sharp fingernail. You can then discard the bloody fragments as a warning.

Things are a bit more complicated when there are two or more LBs on the same plant. If they are, as they often are, in a loving embrace, you can attempt to seize them as a group. When they are on widely separated leaves you may have to make a decision as to which is to be captured and which to be spared, a decision which can easily make for sleepless nights.

I roam through the garden once or twice a day with LBs specifically in mind but I also watch out for them as I make my way to other tasks. The lily foliage will often have small holes in it (which could come from a variety of foes) but is seldom ugly, especially as the lily grows in height and strength. I have no hope of defeating the LBs but, for the moment, we can continue to enjoy lilies in the garden.

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One of the uncanny coincidental pleasures for me during the continuously rainy days of April was to find myself in a parallel immersion, that of Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies. Harris, who is in her mid-thirties, a Lecturer at the University of Liverpool, has had a most productive half-dozen years, beginning with Romantic Moderns (2010). I came across a review, read the book, and was entranced. It deals with a wide range of English artists in the first half of the twentieth-century – poets, painters, novelists, sculptors, composers, even gardeners – who thought of themselves and were publicly identified as ‘modern’, seeking to break, in a variety of ways with what they conceived of as the orthodoxy of preceding centuries, but in whom, just as they were hailed as modern pathbreakers, the dissonance and chosen inaccessibility gradually dissolved into a softer ‘romantic’ posture.

Was this inevitable? Is that what we all confront, that our youthful boldness yields to prudence and caution with age? That age withers, our bodies fail, our minds lope – if we’re lucky – where once they cantered, is undeniable. But is there an inevitable progression/slither into a conservative romanticism, where the desire and ability to strike out in new directions have oozed away? Is ‘artistic lateness not…harmony and resolution, but…intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction’? (Edward Said, On Late Style) The danger, of course, is that we rebel against decline by opting for newness, for a kind of radical chic as, to move this into gardening talk which was always my intent, in the callow reverence for the supposed originality in the work of Piet Oudolf, a reverence that flows from a regrettable unfamiliarity with gardening history evidenced by most of his enthusiasts.

A second Harris book was a biography of Virginia Woolf. It is tempting to ask whether yet another book about the Bloomsberries and, in particular, a biography of its most analysed literary figure, could be of significant value (Weatherland is dedicated to ‘Hermione Lee, with love and thanks’ who had herself written an earlier ‘comprehensive’ biography of Woolf).  Virginia Woolf (2011) is crisp without being curt, profound without pretension, perceptive without being crassly psychoanalytical. An unusual feature is the attention given to Orlando,[2] Woolf’s tale of an aristocrat who moves through the centuries first as a man, then as a woman, and to Woolf’s most taxing novel, The Waves. The hero/heroine of Orlando is often identified with Vita Sackville-West, chatelaine of Sissinghurst, though I have found little in Woolf’s writings to suggest that she felt gardening to be a complex art.

‘It’s raining today. So what else is new? It rained yesterday too, and the day before that. And the day before that it really poured. In fact, the last time the sun shone was Friday, and today’s Wednesday’, wrote Charles Elliott, an American living in England, in the 1980s and 1990s. Rain figures prominently in Weatherland though its subject is more widely weather and climate. ‘I have tried to piece together episodes from the vast history of life in the English weather…It is a version of the life story of a literary culture,and a portrait from many angles of the weather in which it flourished…I have tried to hang a mirror in the sky, and to watch the writers and artists who appear in it.’

No artist is so consumed by, focussed upon the weather as the gardener. Those seedlings I planted out this morning in the hope of a light drizzle tonight; is there frost in the forecast? How strong is the wind going to be and which direction will it come from? Where will I put that ruby-foliaged plant so that the sun will shine through it? What can I do to ensure that snow will not break open the hedges? How long is it since it rained, which plants are flagging? Will there be cloud cover? These questions and anxieties, and a thousand more, resemble remarkably the similar questions with which other artists interrogate themselves. Weatherland (2015) takes the reader from medieval thinkers for whom ‘the weather was only one manifestation of a larger fate…decreed by God’; through Chaucer and Donne for whom ‘weathers were always those of body and mind’, and Shakespeare with those mysterious and hypnotic lines from Twelfth Night:

            He that has and a little tiny wit

            With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

            Must make content with his fortunes fit,

            For the rain it raineth every day

and on through the great names of English literature: Wordsworth, obsessed with wandering clouds, Coleridge with wind (‘driven backward, struggling forward’); through the great novelists of the 19C (Charlotte Brontë, where ’that wind has wakened a feeling it cannot satisfy’), to Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan and to the present day concern with climate change. It is, perhaps surprisingly, left to a Frenchman, Marcel Proust, to summarise: ‘A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves’, a proposition that comes as no surprise to a gardener.

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Every spring I write, ‘Surely this is the most beautiful spring I have known.’ Whether that is true or not, it has certainly been the earliest in my memory. Our Open Garden day on April 9 was two weeks earlier than anything we have attempted before, and the implicit hubris turned out to be justified by a fine range of flowering plants and by excited visitors. The rain and cool temperatures that followed dampened some enthusiasm – the high temperature on our subsequent Open Garden day, April 30, was 4C (39F) – but kept snowdrops and aconites, early iris and leucojums, crocus and the rows and banks of February Daphne in pristine form for weeks rather than days. The dwarf tulips, the yellow white-tipped Tulipa tarda, ‘native of Central Asia, especially the Tien Shan’, and T. urumiensis, with reddish-brown backs to the sepals but lacking the white edges, normally flowering for a week, have been going strong for three, closing on shady days and opening wide on sunny. Bloodroot, double and single, jeffersonias,dwarf tulipsthe cowslip, Primula veris, hellebores, anemones in several colours, Pasque flowers (pulsatilla species), a bed dominated by the Spring Pea, Lathyrus vernus and the emerging foliage of shrubs and trees have combined to ensure that this is the most beautiful spring I have known.

Our next Open Garden days are Sunday, May 28, and June 18, from 10am-4pm.


[1] Martyn Rix and Roger Phillips in The Bulb Book write that ‘It is called in Persian “Tears of Mary” because of the great drops of nectar at the base of each petal. Christian tradition tells that of all the flowers only the proud Crown Imperial refused to bow its head at the Crucifixion; it has bowed and wept ever since.’

[2]  A writer friend comments:  And thank you for mention of the Virginia Woolf biography. I just finished reading it. It’s beautifully written. I particularly like the discussion of her books. even (or especially) Orlando. The biography makes me want to start with The Voyage Out and read or reread all of them, though I’ll likely not. But I’ve not read The Waves or The Years or Between the Acts and now want to.

About the Author

Brian Bixley and his wife live in a Victorian farmhouse 70 miles north-west of Toronto, where he has slowly been making a garden in the middle of open farm fields. While he has particular interests in clematis (the species), alpine plants and, more recently, unusual trees, his main concern is making a garden that is satisfying in a number of ways, and which relates to and “borrows” the beautiful countryside that surrounds it. Brian’s book, Essays on Gardening in a Cold Climate, is available for $20 (US or Canadian), plus shipping. His new book, Ten New Snowdrops, is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the passion for new snowdrop forms. CAN$15.00 Click here to order them.

When dealing with frost it is always best to be paranoid. In the spring never think it is too late for one more frost to come. And in the fall never think it too early.

~Rundy in Frost

Comments on this entry are closed.

Betsy May 18, 2017, 12:09 pm

Interesting. What were the little yellow flowers in the last picture? I’ve never seen them. Not winter aconite or golden star. Foliage looks like grape hyacinth.

Brian May 18, 2017, 7:23 pm

The yellow flowers are those of the two tulips mentioned in the text. They are 5-6″ when they start to flower, eventually elongating to 8-9″. Very easy to grow and will seed themselves around if you can keep the chipmunks and the squirrels away!