Books: Something for the weekend

Sue Gaisford discovers masterly tips and surprising solutions in a facsimile edition of the Sissinghurst musings; In Your Garden by Vita Sackville-West Oxendale Press, pounds 13.99
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The Independent Culture
How do you tackle marauding hooligans? This problem was preocccupying Vita Sackville-West as she sat down to write her Observer column on 9 April 1950. The hooligans in question were naughty, wanton, wild sparrows blithely attacking her display of charming and uncommon primroses.

Her readers responded to her appeal in their hundreds, and a fortnight later she pooled all their advice. It included pepper, soft soap, basic slab, holly, confetti, a palisade of wooden pipe-lighters, splintered gramophone records "preferably Bing Crosby", a masterful young cat and, strangely, Christian Science - to which, one reader insisted, sparrows are particularly susceptible.

Vita's gardening columns were collected in 1951 into this little book which is now reprinted in facsimile. Around Sissinghurst today she is remembered - mostly by the old men she caught scrumping her apples decades ago - as a terrifyingly formidable figure, but you wouldn't guess that from her book. It is delightful, full of enthusiasm and detailed, practical advice. She even recommends her favourite seedsmen, saying that it is useless to recommend varieties and species without telling people where they can buy them.

Many of these have now gone out of business but, following her excellent example, you might like to know that most of the plants she grew can be obtained from the Nursery Near Sissinghurst. She has that effect on a reader: she sends you to the Yellow Pages.

Even the most amateur and down-hearted gardener wants to have a go at tracking down the balsam poplar or planting the giant pansies, the old roses, the irises and peonies she so loved. For those of us who, like her, are faced with the prospect of trying to bring colourful life to the heavy soil of the Weald, there is real sympathy: "Only those who have tried to garden on Wealden clay can know what that means," she says kindly.

Some of it is quaintly dated. She remarks that her readers will be wanting to make their front gardens attractive for foreign visitors to the Festival of Britain. This is a little rich, coming from the great Elizabethan tower of Sissinghurst Castle, but she is seldom really patronising, always ready to admit that plans which look so fine on paper fail lamentably in fulfilment, or that her advice is sound, but she herself might not get round to acting on it.

She writes for gardeners who want to grow something their neighbours will envy; for recipients of cyclamens who would like them to survive; for pruners, secateurs in hand, wondering how to identify rose-suckers. She is, in fact, against pruning. Once, she had a jobbing gardener who destroyed her tree-peoply by excessive savagery: when she employed him, she adds darkly, she hadn't known he was a Jehovah's Witness (pity he wasn't a Christian Scientist). She is all for allowing plants to flourish exuberantly and rampantly: "I like generosity wherever I find it."

The book follows the course of the gardening year. A modern disciple can get out there with a hoe and Walkman and listen to Janet McTeer reading it, word for word, on the accompanying cassettes, but it is at its best studied by fire in the evening, particularly in winter.

It was in January snow that she planned her famous white garden, keeping warm with blankets, eiderdown and hot water bottle, and dreaming of a summer evening in the pale garden of her imagination. That plan reached glorious fulfilment, but another, wilder one required a later footnote: "Do not follow this advice. It was a complete failure."

A few extra articles fill up the remaining space in the book. One describes an old manuscript gardening book she had come across; another, a visit to the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, who, in his swirling cloak and floppy hat, alarmed her by emerging suddenly from the rhododendrons.

But the main pleasure of her writing is to learn, from her own experience, lessons given with humanity and generosity. When something is really successful, she is as surprised as delighted: "The moral of this article," she says, "if any newspaper article can be said to have a moral, is that it just shows what you can do if you put your mind to it." Time to get planting.