January

 

By Vita Sackville-West

 

January 1, 1950

 

Some generous friend may have given you a plant-token for Christmas, and you may be wondering, how best to expend it. A plant-token is a real gift from heaven; it represents an extravagance one might hesitate to commit for oneself; a luxury, an extra, a treat. One has no alternative, for, unlike a cheque, one cannot virtuously put it to the reduction of one's overdraft. There is nothing to be done with it except to buy a plant.

 

Could one do better than choose the autumn-flowering cherry, Prunus subhirtella autumnalis? In England it might more properly be called winter-flowering, for it does not open until November, but in its native Japan it begins a month earlier; hence its autumnal name. Here, if you pick it in the bud and put it in a warm room or a greenhouse, you can have the white sprays in flower six weeks before Christmas, and it will go on intermittently, provided you do not allow the buds to be caught by too severe a frost, until March.

 

It is perhaps too ordinary to appeal to the real connoisseur- a form of snobbishness I always find hard to understand in gardeners- but its wands of white are of so delicate and graceful a growth, whether on the tree or in a vase, that it surely should not be condemned on that account. It is of the easiest cultivation, content with any reasonable soil, and it may be grown either as a standard or a bush; I think the bush is preferable, because then you get the flowers at eye-level instead of several feet above your head- though it can also look very frail and youthful, high up against the pale blue of a winter sky.

 

How precious are the flowers of mid-winter! Not the hot house things, nor even the forced trusses of lilac, most of which, I understand, come from Holland, but the genuine toughs that for some strange reason elect to display themselves out-of-doors at this time of year. The winter-sweet opens its yellow star-fish against a wall, and the twisted ribbons of the Witch-hazel are disentangling themselves on their leafless branches. Both of these sweet-scented winter flowerers should qualify for a choice with the plant-token.

 

Garrya elliptica is not so often seen, though it has been known in this country since 1818; its nickname, the Tassel-Bush, describes it best, for it hangs itself from December onwards with soft grey-green catkins eight or ten inches in length, like bunches of enormous caterpillars among the very dark leaves. Some people think it dismal, but a large bush is an imposing sight if you have the patience to wait for it. It does require patience, for it dislikes being moved and, therefore, must be planted small; also you must insist upon getting a male plant, or there will not be any catkins. The female plant will give you only black bunches of fruits. As it will thrive against a north wall, however, where few other things will thrive, it may well be left there to take its time without occupying the space wanted for something else.

 

January 22, 1950

 

It is amusing to make one-colour gardens. They need not necessarily be large, and they need not necessarily be enclosed, though the enclosure of a dark hedge is, of course, ideal. Failing this, any secluded corner will do, or even a strip of border running under a wall, perhaps the wall of the house. The site chosen must depend upon the general lay-out, the size of the garden, and the opportunities offered. And if you think that one colour would be monotonous, you can have a two- or even a three-colour, provided the colours are happily married, which is sometimes easier of achievement in the vegetable than in the human world. You can have, for instance, the blues and purples, or the yellows and the bronzes, with their attendant mauves and orange respectively. Personal taste alone will dictate what you choose.


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