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Marin IJ Articles

Gardening Muses

  • D.F. Braun
  • There are three gardeners who have had a significant influence on our gardening practices and attitudes. Of course, to call them simply gardeners is like calling Ben Franklin simply a printer. As writers they brought to the profession a wealth of life experiences that enriched their knowledge in a fresh, innovative style which they were able to pass on to us.

    Probably best remembered for her novels, poems and membership in the Bloomsbury group, Vita Sackville-West was an avid gardener at Sissinghurst, now a National Trust in England. But she contributed to our gardening knowledge through her 15 years as a garden columnist for the London Observer. Her philosophy: “There’s nothing like gardening to keep one young. It is the most rejuvenating of occupations. One is always looking forward to next year and five years hence.”
    She constantly urged readers to try new plants, as well as where, when and what nutrients were needed for success.
    Often offering the pros and cons of plants, she wrote, for example, of the Japanese anemone not liking to be moved as it will take two seasons to recover. “They’re best in the shade or a neglected corner where other herbaceous plants won’t flourish. They’re not good for picking, but bloom at a dreamy time of year.” (Short and sweet!) Nor was she afraid to enter the controversy about rose pruning. She complained it was overdone, referring to the Second World War when rose bushes were neglected for years, but “thrived and bloomed on.”
    Unhappy with one of her own garden borders, she wrote in frustration about mixing up the seeds of many packets of flowers and planting them in early fall. A brief note to her readers in the spring indicated, “It was a complete failure. Do not follow this advice.” Despite occasional errors she created an atmosphere of sharing and learning from her readers. She welcomed suggestions, even old wives tales. Did you know weak tea sustains cyclamens indoors?
    Katherine White was an editor for the New Yorker magazine for 34 years, but always found a way to garden. After retirement she moved with her husband E.B. White to Maine where she wrote gardening articles for the New Yorker. Though she was influenced by European gardens, she believed the American garden reflected the unpretentious American way. She wrote often of our wild flowers and the need for their preservation.
    As a great collector of catalogs she often traced plants to their source to determine their true quality—the tulip bulbs of Holland, the peonies of Asia.
    Her editorial skills served her well as she often suggested gardening books of note.
    Always an ambitious houseplant grower in her wintery Maine, she wrote some very funny stories about her role as “care giver.” She was particularly concerned about an angel-winged coccinea begonia that had grown so tall it threatened the ceiling. She thought about eating it just as the citizens of Paris ate their begonias as a substitute for spinach during the siege of 1871—but she had her doubts about ingesting an equally tall rubber plant.
    Both Sackville-West and White wrote of Gertrude Jekyll’s great contributions to gardening “she beautified England.”
    Because of her failing eyesight Gertrude left her life in Paris as an Impressionist painter to return to England where she used her artistic skills to develop not only her own garden at Munstead, but over 300 gardens in England as well as writing 15 books. Jekyll believed the formal gardens of Europe, France and Italy lacked the natural features she felt necessary to create a “beautiful garden picture.” Natural features are best left alone and variety is not necessarily desirable. She urged ways to blend the emergence of trees to the garden with plants such as wild clematis or rambling roses to ease the sight. Above all it was color that mattered most. Note her appreciation of the “Wood-Sorrel, tenderest and loveliest of wood plants. The white flower in the mass has a light lilac tinge; when I look close I see that this comes from a fine veining of reddish-purple colour on the white ground . . . As white as the lightest part of a pearl.” Jekyll lived to be ninety and for many decades was revered as the authority on beautiful gardens.
    In Your Garden
    V. Sackville-West
    (Ed. Frances Lincoln)
    Onward And Upward In The Garden
    Katherine S. White
    (Ed. Little, Brown, etc.)
    Intro. By E.B.White
    On Gardening
    Gertrude Jekyll