The regard for Vita Sackville-West's (1892-1962) garden writing seems to have mirrored the increasing popularity of the gardens she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, created at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Already famous as a novelist, poet and Virginia Woolf's lover, in 1937 she wrote Some Flowers, a collection of plant portraits. Apart from that one volume, most of what's available in print today are compilations of the articles she wrote for the Sunday Observer newspaper from 1951 to 1961. Never pretending to be more than an enthusiastic amateur, after being awarded the prestigious Veitch Memorial Medal by the RHS in 1955, she decided to embark on a correspondence course in horticulture. Claiming that she only wrote for the Observer for the money (15 guineas per week—a princely sum in post-war Britain), she naturally wanted to be remembered chiefly for her novels and poetry collections. Nevertheless, her love of gardening, her unerring taste and her passion for plants shine through, despite her protestations.
"The main purpose of a garden is to give its owner the best and highest kind of earthly pleasure"
On a cold, slate-grey winter's day, with the northwest wind whipping across the frozen lake, there's nothing I like better than to curl up in front of the fire with Frankly (my faithful spaniel) and immerse myself in the bygone world of some of my favourite garden writers. It's my version of comfort food, and has the same effect as a steaming bowl of mashed potatoes swimming in butter, but with fewer calories.
Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) is often the first author I reach for, but she's not much in fashion these days, perhaps due to her undeniably Victorian delivery; in fact you're more apt to find a book about her than by her. Trained as a painter at the South Kensington School of Art, London, she didn't begin to garden until her mid-50s, when failing eyesight forced her to forego her canvases. An admirer of William Robinson, who spearheaded the revolt against late-Victorian carpet bedding in favour of hardy perennials in mixed borders, she quickly teamed up with the much younger architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, OM (1869-1944), who took care of the hardscaping, leaving her free to devote herself to plants. Her poor eyesight resulted in using flowers in drifts for a sweep of colour—a principle we take for granted today. She herself said that her lack of vision (her natural focus was five centimetres) made her other senses more acute: She was able to tell what kind of trees were growing near her by the sound of the wind in their leaves, and blindfolded, she could even differentiate rose cultivars by their scent.
Late in life, Miss Jekyll corresponded and traded plants with another great gardener of the age, E. A. "Gussie" Bowles (1865-1954), who wrote three books about the seasonal changes in his garden (Myddleton House, north of London) that are still in print, and well worth reading. You'll recognize his name from the more than 40 plants that bear the Bowles handle, seven of which hold Royal Horticultural Society Awards of Garden Merit.
Incidentally, once you're initiated into the Jekyll clique, you can't do any better than Kitchen Essays (1922), written by Gertrude's sister-in-law, Lady Agnes Jekyll (1861-1937), which transports you smoothly from the garden to the second-most important room of the house.
Adam Nicolson, who is Vita's talented grandson, recently wrote a book about Sissinghurst (Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History, 2009)—the best to date—as well as another of my favourite "mashed potato" tomes, Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides. So sit back and relax; spring will arrive soon enough.
Stephen's top 10 garden writers
- E. A. Bowles (1865-1954)
- Nan Fairbrother (1913-1971)
- Margery Fish (1892-1969)
- Miles Hadfield (1903-1982)
- Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932)
- Beverley Nichols (1898-1983)
- Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962)
- Lady Anne Scott-James (1913-2009)
- Sir Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988)
- Sir Roy Strong (b. 1935)