Gardens of earthly delight

Gardeners are passionate creatures, planting in hope, weeding their way out of despair. By Sue Gaisford The Virago Book of Women Gardeners ed. Deborah Kellaway Virago, pounds 16.99

Early in 1802, Dorothy Wordsworth noted in her diary that she'd seen some daffodils. They "tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind". Her brother William famously made a poem out of them; had he chosen to dwell on an earlier sentence, he might instead have immortalised "that starry yellow flower which Mrs C. calls pile wort."

Of course he didn't. Poor little pile wort. It was never going anywhere with a name like that. Reading Deborah Kellaway's witty, entertaining anthology, you catch yourself dwelling on names, wondering whether, had she been called something lovelier, like Xenia Field or Celia Fiennes, Gertrude Jekyll might be a less risible figure. Her great collaborator, Edwin Luytens, called her "Toute Suite", which is a far better name for one so incorrigibly enthusiastic, so resolute and so creative.

Jekyll dominates this book, and rightly. The 18 examples of her writing are distinguished by their accuracy of observation, their effortless fluency and their sheer good sense. A dahlia's first duty in life, she asserts, is to flaunt and swagger; a downpour after drought is a reminder that it's good to live, and all the more good to live in a garden; spend sevenpence on a good strong knife and you'll make short work of dandelion roots; be wary of descriptions in seed-catalogues or you may find that what you hope is a crimson flower proves to be "malignant magenta".

But then the rest come roaring after her, often loud in disagreement. Anne Pratt raves about the "untiring eagerness and white downy balls" of dandelions, and three others grow positively lyrical about magenta. For gardeners are passionate creatures, planting in hope, weeding their way out of despair. They develop such strong anthropomorphic feelings about plants that individual specimens send them up the wall faster than a rushing vine. Anna Pavord writes about sneaky underground runners, forever plotting insurrection; Anna Lea Merritt curses the "sycophant Dock", and Margery Fish has no luck at all with pink stachys; "whatever I do she remains a mean, wizened little thing with no appetite for life". The most furious writer of all is Germaine Greer, whose rage is directed at the other inhabitants of her plot: "Rabbits are bloody bastards. Absolute bloody bastards."

She should read this book. Help is at hand from Louisa Johnson, writing in 1843. She points out that rabbits dislike climbing or entangling their feet, and recommends surrounding your horticultural darlings with straw, ashes, a fence of sticks or a string - or you could just grab a twelve- bore. Nothing defeats the true gardener: not rabbits, nor rubble, nor rooks. Clad, if she follows Lady Seton's advice, in a short, broad tweed skirt and a loose khaki flannel jumper, grasping her strong knife in wash- leather housemaid's gloves ("sold at any village-shop"), she can, unaided, subdue the wilderness. She can nurture over a hundred species on a tiny patch of roof, 23 floors up a city tower-block; she can plant out her seedlings by moonlight, while her disapproving husband slumbers; she can, if she really wants to, create a huge triumphal arch over her dining-room table, providing shelter for bowls of water-lilies and maiden-hair fern.

Close observation makes for some startling analogies. Jane Taylor writes evocatively of flowers that swell like hot toffee, stewed apples and pencils, the "tack-room" aroma of rhododendrons, an acacia redolent of the sweet breath of horses. More worrying is how Sue Phillips knows that old asparagus peas taste like boiled toe-nail clippings. However, she's probably right: as the great Miss Jekyll observes, the only way is to try and learn a little from everybody and from every place - which nicely contradicts Beatrix Havergal's insistence that "the only way to learn is to DO everything". And if the sheer industry of these women exhausts you, turn to page 49 and the wisdom of Edna Walling: "I love to throw myself into an inviting chair in the green shade of a large tree with my books on a low table beside me, but you might prefer to dig and plant. I like to do that too ... sometimes."

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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