I went to a very informative Gardening Club talk last week by Andrew Mikolajski entitled “The March Of The Women”.
I had heard of most of the female gardeners/garden designers/horticulturalists who Andrew spoke about (Gertrude Jekyll, Ellen Willmott, Vita Sackville-West, Margery Fish, Rosemary Verey and Beth Chatto); some were new to me (Norah Lindsay, Sylvia Crowe, Martha Schwartz and Isabelle Green all of whom from memory are from the other side of the pond) but what I came home thinking was it was time to get my three Vita Sackville-West “Observer” books down from the spare room bookshelves and start dipping into them more regularly.
Her weekly columns with “The Observer” were published over the course of fifteen years, from 1946 – 1961 and many of them are available in three books: “In Your Garden”, ” In Your Garden Again” and “More For Your Garden”. There are lots of reasons I like them. They are reproduced in a monthly Jan-Dec format so you can read what she wrote this exact same week in, say, 1954, giving you an insight into the weather, the way we gardened back then and her thoughts on horticultural matters which are still very relevant today. Each of the three books has charming additions to the newspaper columns. In the first volume for example, we find her views on a visit she made to Hidcote Manor, which was originally printed in The Journal of the RHS in 1949; there are also her thoughts on some 20 flowers which caught her particular fancy (from Abutilon Megapotamicum ~ the “curious Brazilian with the formidable name” – to Zinnias ~ which “look as though they have been cut out of bits of cardboard ingeniously glued together into the semblance of a flower”).
One of the most fascinating things, which she was not allowed to publish in the original “Observer” columns, was a list of nurserymen, seedsmen and purveyors of plants and horticultural paraphernalia. In her Foreword to the first volume, she says
…neither The Observer nor any other journal could have allowed the ‘free advertisement’ of publishing the names and addresses. It led to a formidable increase in my correspondence; I think two thousand enquiries arising out of one article was the record….I trust and believe I answered them all. If anyone was overlooked, I take this opportunity of offering an apology.
A few of the recommended firms she mentions are still with us today: R.C.Notcutt of Woodbridge, Suffolk, (“lilacs a speciality”) is now a large, nationwide garden centre; Thompson & Morgan, Sutton & Sons and Unwins are all still successful distributors of seeds and sundries. One which caught my eye under, ‘Fruit Trees – and Fruit In General’ was Laxton Bros, 63H, High Street, Bedford, which is now (thank you Google Maps) a Tesco Express. Vita’s recommendation for where to buy ‘Uncommon Vegetables’ is one Mrs Kathleen Hunter of Wheal Frances, Callestick, Truro, Cornwall. I wonder who lives there now. Interestingly Kathleen’s catalogue from the mid-50s shows up on Amazon, although it is currently unavailable. I wonder whether any of Mrs Hunter’s ancestors are still in the horticultural trade.
Vita wrote across many genres: poetry, biography, criticism, travel as well as fiction. Whether you are familiar with her output or not, her garden writing is often amusing, always informative, openly honest, and normally with an eye on the reader’s budget. Profligate, she was not.
So here is an example (apropos of nothing) which I read just this morning. From March 27th, 1955, she says of Phlox,
Some people love the scent of phlox: to me, it suggests pigsties, not that I dislike pigsties, being country-born, and well accustomed to them.
Vita was born at Knole, and whilst I don’t doubt for one minute she had come across pigsties, her description of being ‘country born’ is perhaps not your or my version.
Knole is in fact a country pile situated within Knole Park, a 1,000-acre park located immediately to the south-east of Sevenoaks in west Kent, some 25 miles from her beloved Sissinghurst. The house apparently ranks in the top five of England’s largest houses occupying a total of four acres. The House: four acres. Yes, you read that correctly. She was born there in 1892, grew up there, and here recounts a legend that it is a calendar house:
….its seven courtyards correspond to the days of the week, its fifty-two staircases to the weeks of the year, its three hundred and sixty-five rooms to the days of the year, but ‘I do not know that anyone has ever troubled to verify it.’
With a new film due out in the UK in July, which concentrates on Vita’s love affair with Virginia Woolf, an increased spotlight will no doubt once again be on her, her writing, her fascinating life, as well her garden in Sissinghurst. For me, the short snippets of gardening expertise in these three books are beautifully written and charming. We are lucky to have them.
Annie Bee xxx