I have just finished reading the Penguin Classics edition of Vita Sackville-West’s Observer garden commentaries. Let Us Now Praise Famous Gardens is a series of excerpts from the collections of her articles In Your Garden, originally published in 1951 and followed by In Your Garden Again, More for Your Garden and Even More for Your Garden. Interestingly, all four books of weekly columns, which cover the years 1950 to 1957, rarely repeat themselves to any extent, and all the information in them is as pertinent today as it was over half a century ago. True we are no longer able to purchase packets of seed for a few pennies, and the taxonomists have altered many of the names, but her thoughts about colour, plant combinations and siting are still valid.
It is also impressive that a writer who travelled widely and led a fascinating life, could still sit down in her study every week and produce articles designed to help gardeners create a space of their own which would be different from that of their neighbour. She writes of an elderly acquaintance who plants seeds into everything she can lay her hands on, “there are cardboard dress boxes tied round with string to prevent them from disintegrating and old Golden Syrup tins…I verily believe she would use an old shoe if it came in handy” (pp22), orchards she has seen as she has driven by and gardens where she has stopped to ask the owner about an unknown shrub which turned out to be Hydrangea grandiflora paniculata. She writes clearly and with authority about plants which have flourished in her own garden, and also those which have failed.
Her views on flowers do not simply refer to colour or shape, but also the texture of leaves, the velvet of dark red petals, fragrance and taste. She intriguingly writes of the ‘strawberry grape’ which is still available under ‘Vitis Vinifera Fragola’, and is commonly grown in Italy. It is very hardy, sounds delicious, but is not seedless which may put some people off.
The Penguin volume has no illustrations but is still excellent reading for all that. Of the four volumes listed above, the first has many black and white photographs, of historical interest to those of us to love Sissinghurst and like to see how it has evolved, the second has some colour plates of flowers, and the last two are simply the articles. We are so accustomed to lavishly illustrated gardening books that it feels unusual to have straight text with nothing to lighten it. However Vita Sackville-West’s descriptive powers are such that before long, the imagination is set free to picture the tattered bark of Arbutus Menzieseii, the memory jolt of plants grown by our grandparents, cushions of foliage and flames of spring tulips.
And how many other writers, even those today with access to flights and budgets, could start a piece “Many years ago, in the high mountains of Persia, I collected some seed pods off a mimosa which was most unaccountably growing there, some 5,000 feet above sea-level…” (In Your Garden Again, p.50) and go on to tell how she now had a tree growing out of doors in her garden and vase full of fragrant yellow blossom on her table.
My bedtime reading for the foreseeable future is clearly set out – I plan to read the volumes back to back starting tonight.