THE VITALITY OF VITA
It is both irritating and encouraging to have a string of
rainy days during the busiest season of the gardening year.
Irritating because there is so much to do outside, and so
little time to get all the planting, weeding, mulching and
other chores done. Encouraging because the rain is needed,
and, frankly, so is the respite.
I like to weed in the rain, especially if it is just a fine mist, and I don’t have somewhere to go that requires that my hair look like anything other than a Brillo pad. Weeds pop handily out of damp ground, and I enjoy the childlike feeling of playing in the mud. A session of weeding in the rain is also a good way to allay the guilt that I inevitably feel about sitting down with a good gardening book once the weeding session is over.
This past week I have been sitting down with Vita’s Other World by Jane Brown; a volume subtitled, “A Gardening Biography of V. Sackville-West”. Gardeners who are unfamiliar with Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) can enrich their lives by getting to know her. She was, first and foremost, an example of a certain kind of Englishwoman who does not exist anymore. Born into a wealthy family just before the turn of the nineteenth century, she grew up at a great English estate called Knole in the county of Kent, surrounded by aristocratic and intellectual trappings and fabulous gardens. Eventually she married Harold Nicolson, a diplomat, scholar and writer. Vita and Harold were socially, intellectually and sometimes romantically linked with members of the literary and artistic Bloomsbury group, including author Virginia Woolf. Vita, a working writer for most of her life, was celebrated as a poet and critic of poetry. She also became famed as a gardener and a gardening columnist for the Observer newspaper. Compilations of her gardening essays, as well as many of her other literary works, are still in print.
There are quite a few biographies of the Nicolsons, including the fascinating Portrait of a Marriage, by their son, Nigel. Vita’s Other World is unique because it celebrates Vita the gardener, the famous gardens that she made at her homes at Long Barn and Sissinghurst, and the passion for horticulture that she shared with Harold Nicolson.
Reading about Vita and her gardens is like entering into an English-accented dream. The pace of life is slower, garden help is easier to come by, and there is enough time each day to punctuate spells of gardening and writing with long walks in the English countryside. What’s more, Vita had access to great gardeners of her day like Gertrude Jekyll, with her meticulously color-blended herbaceous borders. Vita captures my sympathies because even as Harold pleaded poverty, Vita (with his full support and sympathy) bought plants and added to the gardens.
Vita was, among other things, a rosarian who loved old varieties. Among the roses that covered her first house, Long Barn, was one of my favorites, the gorgeous peachy-yellow climber, ‘Gloire de Dijon’. Vita also loved the Pemberton hybrid musks and the lush Bourbon roses. She had a similar soft spot for little flowers such as viola, saxifrage (sometimes known as rockfoil) and gentians that could be planted in pockets in stone walls or installed in stone “sinks” or troughs.
The Nicolsons’ gardens were lush and romantic, full of lilies, iris, peonies, alliums and pinks. Though Vita never entered the kitchen, her herb garden had every variety imaginable. She also had strong agricultural leanings, and her most famous garden, at Sissinghurst, supported figs, grapes, alpine strawberries, apples, pears, peaches, nectarines and something the author calls a “cherry-plum” or myrobalan. Though not open to the public during Vita’s lifetime, there was also a robust vegetable garden on the estate.
The gardens of Sissinghurst were visited by thousands of people during the Nicolsons’ lifetimes, and tens of thousands since. Now, probably the most famous part of that garden is Vita’s “White Garden”, which was designed in 1949. It is full of white-flowered cultivars, complimented by an array of silver-leafed plants, with the general whiteness leavened here and there by touches of pale yellow. The White Garden, which Jane Brown says was inspired by Vita’s tendency to be a “night owl”, has inspired countless imitations in many parts of the world.
Vita Sackville-West was an unconventional woman who had a successful, if unconventional relationship with her husband. The relationship resulted in extraordinary gardens. When I think about the Nicolsons, their lives seem remote from this time and place. After all, Vita never had to stop weeding in order to cook dinner or reboot the computer, and I am quite sure that Harold never took out the garbage. On the other hand, every real gardener can empathize with the woman who wrote, “…how I wish I had another 50 years to look forward to and 10 gardeners and 10 thousand pounds bequeathed to me…to be expended on nothing but the garden.”