Gardening: A reminder of past triumphs

Anna Pavord is inspired by a meticulous gardening diary
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The Independent Online
One of my good intentions when we first moved to our house was to keep a record of work that we did in the garden. If nothing else, I thought it might at least stop me making the same mistake twice. But such was the chaos of taking on a house where ivy grew up the inside of the walls as well as the outside, that the first years galloped by unrecorded. Looking back, I see only a blur of small children, too many animals and huge bonfires.

It took us 18 months of hacking through brambles, elder and seedling sycamores to find what we supposed were the boundaries of the garden. When finally I broke through to a stone wall at the back of what is now the top lawn, I came face to face with farmer Fry, our neighbour, feeding sheep in the adjoining field. "Well," he said, after gazing at me steadily for a while. "I haven't seen anyone up there since the big war." He meant the first one of course.

So quite a lot had happened before one January, four years after our arrival, I finally wrote "Garden Book" on an old school exercise book and started making notes. "Attacked the boundary hedge, got rid of remaining brambles and rebuilt two sections of the retaining wall." A lot of attacking goes on in the early entries. It makes me feel exhausted just to read about it.

But, usefully, the garden diary jogs the memory about things I'd forgotten. It notes the date that the old apple tree, the centre-piece of the round border, blew down in a terrible gale. It records the price of the railway sleepers (pounds 5.60 each) that I got in to edge the sides of the asparagus bed. I had eight more delivered last week to edge paths in the vegetable garden. The price? pounds 20 each plus VAT.

The problem with garden books is that when there is most to write about, there is least time to write. But I hope to do better this year than I have in the past, spurred on by the garden books kept by my great-uncle. They are models of precision and clarity, and from time to time I take them down from my shelves and read them as a special sort of treat. Or rather a re-treat - from the chaos of the real world.

He was a schoolmaster of a type that scarcely exists now: ascetic, solitary, a traveller, formidably well read. He started his garden books when he retired to a cottage with an acre of garden, and they stretch from March 1945 until June 1962 when the last entry reads "My garden is a jungle. Ill health." He died a month later.

His special interests were carnations, auriculas, sweet peas and chrysanthemums, on all of which he made meticulous notes. He planted two orchards and kept a huge vegetable garden, harvesting at least two dozen different crops each year, all plotted on a neat map of the garden. In January 1958 he notes "Cleaned blackcurrants and mulched them with compost, fire ash and a sprinkling of Gromore fertiliser. Labelled the bush second from the south-west end with three metal tags. It is very vigorous and bore the best crops of berries."

Now that's the kind of thing I keep meaning to do: mark the blackcurrant bushes that seem best to propagate from. Notes jotted down about particularly good forms of plants jog the memory when the right moment comes for taking seed or cuttings. I had some extraordinary opium poppies in the garden this year, but only got round to marking some of the seed pods with twists of green wire. Finding those at seed-collecting time was easy, but the rest may be lost for ever.

In spring 1953 my great-uncle was planting out one of his old carnation beds as a cutting garden, edged with mignonette. In the first row he had love-in-a-mist `Miss Jekyll' and Californian poppies. In the second he planted sweet sultan and clarkia, in the third Shirley poppies and Chrysanthemum tricolor. In the fourth row he put English pot marigolds, a variety called `Radio' (still available from Chilterns Seeds) and finished off with a row of crimson godetias and larkspur. The choice perfectly encapsulates cottage gardening of the Fifties.

The further back in time you go, the more riveting it becomes to read in garden books and diaries about gardens being created, and the minutiae of the work being carried out. On 17 January 1653, the diarist John Evelyn noted that he "began to set out the ovall garden at Sayes Court which was before a rude orchard. All the rest an intire field of 100 acres without any hedge". This was the beginning of the work that eventually made Sayes Court, Deptford, one of the most important gardens of the 17th century.

Parson Woodforde is best known for the gargantuan meals that he put away, all noted in the diary he kept between 1758 and 1802, but between "the neck of mutton boiled, the goose, the rost beef and the plumb puddings", Woodforde found time on 4 January 1782 to "enlarge my Pleasure Ground a Trifle by taking in part of the small Field near Goochs House". In January 1790, he noted "the Season so remarkable mild and warm that my Brother gathered this morning in my Garden some full blown Primroses".

My own garden book records that in the January I started it, the hellebores were in full bloom by now. The poor things started to pierce through the ground round about Christmas this season, but the bitter wind and the iron-hard ground have dissuaded them from coming on any further. Very sensible. But I'm longing for their appearance and have promised myself a visit to R&D Plants to choose some extra hellebores when the flowers are full out. Then I can pick the kind I like best, and don't have.

The practical Romans originally missed out January and February altogether from their calendar, arranging a 10-month year tied to what farmers needed to do on the land. That would suit gardeners, too. January and February are the worst months for trying to do anything that involves the earth or its plants. But they are good months for planning. Or should be.

Harold Nicolson, who laid out the garden at Sissinghurst with his wife, Vita Sackville-West, noted in his diary a futile planning session in the dog days after Christmas 1946. "In the afternoon I moon about with Vita, trying to convince her that planning is an element in gardening. I want to show her that the top of the moat-walk bank must be planted with forethought and design. She wishes just to jab in the things which she has left over. The tragedy of the romantic temperament is that it dislikes form so much that it ignores the effect of masses. She wants to put in stuff which `will give a lovely red colour in the autumn'. I wish to put in stuff which will furnish shape to the perspective. In the end we part, not as friends." Poor man. VSW has usually been given the lion's share of the credit for the garden at Sissinghurst. Nicolson's diary gives us the means to redress the balance.