Category Archives: Books

Vegetal Venom, Poisonous Plants

by Categorized: Books, Botany, Gardens, Just Because, Plants Date:

Ali MarshallAgatha ChristieGardens often are replete with mystery, but murder? Well, yes.

In a very entertaining story, The Financial Times reports on a garden at Torre Abbey in Torquay, England, where the various plant species that Agatha Christie used in her murder mysteries to dispatch hapless victims have been assembled. Torquay is a seaside town on the south coast of England where Christie was born and had a vacation home later in life.

From ricin hidden in fig paste sandwiches to digotoxin, derived from the foxglove plant (which Agatha used to bump off Mrs. Boynton in “Appointment With Death”), the Potent Plants Garden, managed by head gardener Ali Marshall, seems like quite a deadly delight.

FoxgloveClick here for the full story.

Photos via the Financial Times, from top: Ali Marshall, Agatha Christie, foxglove.

Secret Gardens

by Categorized: Books, Children, Elizabeth Park, Garden Design, Gardens, Heritage, Landscape Architecture, Magazines Date:

HRG--4-.JPG_HCMagazine1_03-29-2015_FullRun_HTM_847PM2T1.jpgThis month’s issue of Hartford magazine is all about secrets — and included are two secret gardens that I’ve loved visiting.

Houghton_AC85_B9345_911s_-_Secret_Garden,_1911_-_coverSecret gardens have captivated me since girlhood — even before I first read Frances Burnett Hodgson’s classic novel, “The Secret Garden,” rooted in the wisdom of a garden as a healing, health-restoring tonic.

In particular, I was entranced by the sheltering bowers of rhododendrons at my grandparents’ home, where I often played hide-and-seek with my siblings and cousins (all of them younger than I). Those hiding places offered quite a refreshing respite; I could get away from the fracas and daydream, yet still be part of the action.


Cardinal Richelieu rose, bred prior to 1847Back in 2010, work had just begun on what is now the glorious Heritage Rose Garden, in an intimate and often-overlooked corner of Elizabeth Park. Restoring the garden and replanting Elizabeth Park’s collection of old roses — and I mean old, all of them developed prior to 1867 — was the Rose-Apothecary Rosecentennial project of the Connecticut Valley Garden Club (though the actual centennial isn’t until 2017).

One of the ancient roses included is the Apothecary Rose, at right, developed before 1240 and thought to have been brought to France by a returning Crusader.

Alice Prescott Whyte, an aficionado of antique roses and author of “The Roses of Elizabeth Park,” designed the 10 raised beds in a lovely rosette pattern. Her photographs of roses are featured here. Back in 2010, when volunteers were replanting the roses and the garden still looked pretty bare, Alice told me that the popularity of contemporary Knockout roses has knocked a lot of older roses out of favor.

Rose-Camieux“We’re saving history, one rose at a time,” she said.

The Heritage Rose Garden is tucked a little bit out of sight so be sure to make a point of discovering it later this spring, when the park’s famed Rose Garden arches and beds are in full flowering glory.

For now, feast your eyes on Krystian von Speidel’s appreciation: click here.

Another Hidden Gem

hc-farmingtongarden002-jpg-20150325Meanwhile, Iris Van Rynbach writes about another hidden garden — this one in Farmington, created by landscape architect Fletcher Steele in 1954.

hc-farmingtongarden009-jpg-20150325A pioneer in landscape design, Harvard-educated Steele designed nearly 700 gardens in his career. Many were at grand estates, like the renowned gardens he designed in the 1920s at Naumkeag in Stockbridge, Mass., now a museum, with its renowned Blue Steps flanked by white birches.

hc-farmingtongarden004-jpg-20150325It was quite a coup for Stuart and Mary Smith to have the highly exacting designer transform their 1-acre yard on Main Street — which he initially derided as looking like Tobacco Road — into such a serene showplace.

Here’s a link to Iris’ story: click here.

I love the tale of how the garden was created in the 1950s by the renowned Steele, who had a fondness for martinis and a rather authoritarian streak.

And here are a lot more photos of the garden, by Mark Mirko and yours truly: click here.

Photos, from top: Heritage Rose Garden at Elizabeth Park (courtesy of Elizabeth Park).

Cardinal Richelieu, Apothecary and Camieux roses (by Alice Prescott Whyte).

Farmington garden, including view of ram’s head fountain drenched with water (all three by Mark Mirko).


‘The Sculptural Book’

by Categorized: Art, Books, Crafts, Design, Just Because Date:

Earlier this month, Nick Paumgarten described the staff of The New Yorker’s move from the office at Times Square to the new 1 World Trade Center megatower. His account reminded me in some ways of The Courant newsroom’s move a few months ago — the streamlining it involved and my own ensuing sense of an incredible lightness of being.

Pile of BooksStill, I have to admit, this passage from Paumgarten pained me:

The things we keep around! But mostly it was paper, whole forests’ worth. Thousands upon thousands of orphaned books, some hoarded for novelty appeal, or a nascent interest, or a bygone assignment, or out of allegiance to (or guilt about) writer friends — an “accretion of intention,” as one acquaintance put it — were trucked off to Housing Works and the like. Many more perfectly good books were sent to their doom, like so many unclaimed stray dogs.

He went on to describe how the process “felt a little like going through the belongings of a dead loved one, except that the dead loved one was you. What was worth saving? Not as much as you’d anticipated, once you got into the spirit of paperlessness.”

I was comforted by this observation from him — that “The thing that’s worth keeping is the thing you do next.”

But I found myself cringing about all those books.

Trouble is, at our house the books are taking over. We’ve run out of bookshelf space, and the reasonably tidy piles here and there — not yet completely out of control, but getting there — have started to seem like permanent installations. Many are books that I doubt I’ll ever find time to read or re-read, even if I were to devote myself to reading full-time for the rest of my life. (What a heavenly notion!)

I can jettison an old turtleneck without blinking an eye, but a book is a different matter. I find it difficult to say adieu.

I thought of all this when I heard that Hartford artist Anne Cubberly and LB Munoz are presenting a five-session workshop on “The Sculptural Book” at the downtown Hartford Public Library’s Hartford History Center. Participants will transform old or discarded books into new artworks — sculpting the pages, adding pop-ups, sewing and altering words to create new meanings.

Sessions are on Saturdays at 10 a.m.Sculptural_book, beginning Feb. 28, through March 28.

Register in person, or call 860-695-6300.


Meanwhile, California-based artist and writer Lisa Occhipinti has a new book out, called “Novel Living: Collecting, Decorating, and Crafting with Books” (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, $24.95,

Laura Pearson with the Chicago Tribune has more on Occhipinti’s book about books here:

Novel Living

An Upcycling, Repurposing Wonderland

by Categorized: Accessories, Antiques, Art, Books, Collecting, Crafts, Decorating, Design, Fabric, Furniture, Garden Ornaments, Heritage, Holidays, Home Products, Just Because, Mid-Century Modern, Recycling, Seasons, Shopping Date:

Blaze and Bloom 012Blaze & Bloom is a riot. So many imaginative, funky, zany, witty ideas packed into one airy, historic space in Hartford.

Four West Hartford friends — Katie Wickham, Jennifer O’Connell, Julie Jones and Tracey George — who are neighbors and all have kids, started the business in 2011. Back then, they held two backyard sales a year — in the fall (Blaze) and spring (Bloom). They specialize in giving new life to discards and otherwise reusing, repurposing and sometimes completely reconceiving old stuff — old maps, blueprints, books, fabrics and furniture.

Blaze and Bloom 016Take, for example the Zenith bar. Yes, it’s a mid-century TV console that swivels. They pulled out all the wires and tubes and other weird stuff (apparently quite a job), painted the interior red and added lights, transforming it into a one-of-a-kind cocktail bar for a family room or man cave. Cheers!

Jennifer spotted a 9-foot porch trellis, rusting and old, by the side of the road. (“I love rusty and old!” she says). She upended it, wove in a wide strip of burlap to look like a Christmas tree and added lights.

Katie has a big collection of old road maps (Esso vintage) and blueprints — and decoupages them onto tables, desks and chests.

Blaze and Bloom 002A vintage road map of Manhattan is framed with an old window: throwaways refashioned into a very cool artwork for $75.

“We believe in recycling, reusing, refurbishing, upcycling,” Katie says. “We don’t like to throw anything away. There’s so much inherent value.”

The Blaze & Bloom philosophy is, essentially, “We can do something with this. It still has a life. We can keep it out of the trash.”

Strips of vintage fabrics are turned into holiday garlands. Christmas balls now dangle from an old round needlepoint stretcher.

Blaze and Bloom 019The pages of an old book are intricately folded for displaying photos. An old piano stool is now covered with an old potato sack, “to give it a more hip life,” as Katie says. And the “item of the week” is a nifty metal catchall — made from segments of an old factory conveyor belt. If you need to get organized, there were two when I stopped by this week,  priced at $55 and $65.

Jennifer says they love the hunt, and buy a lot at estate sales and garage sales. “We just all see things and when we fall in love with them, we say, this will be a great piece to sell. There’s no formula.”

Sometimes the new life of an old item isn’t immediately clear. Jennifer stenciled the word TABLE on a table.

“People loved it, everyone laughed, but nobody bought it,” she recalls. Then Katie decoupaged a map on it, and, Jennifer says, “Voila — it was transformed. It sold in an hour.”

Blaze and Bloom 013 Blaze and Bloom 023 Blaze & Bloom also has an enticing array of vintage neckties, glassware, jewelry and more.

While the four friends started out just for fun, in July they got serious (though they’re clearly still having fun). They moved into a terrific space at 50 Bartholomew Ave. in Hartford — just down the street from the Design Center on the corner of Park Street — that used to be the RLF showroom and long before that was a metal file factory in the 1800s.

The building also houses landscape designer Cynthia Dodd’s Dirt Salon, the new Birch Papery, puppeteer/kinetic artist Anne Cubberly’s workshop and a variety of other artists’ studios. The whole place has a really wonderful, creative, collaborative vibe.

Blaze & Bloom has been open just a few days a month since the summer, but starting on Jan. 4, it will be open from 10-5 every Saturday, and by appointment. And it’s open today, if you’re on the hunt for a one-of-a-kind gift.

For more, go to, email or call 860-888-2087, 860-816-0880 or 860-305-0172.

Blaze and Bloom 005Blaze and Bloom 015Blaze and Bloom 004Blaze and Bloom 011Blaze and Bloom 009Photographs by Nancy Schoeffler