February

 

By Vita Sackville-West

 

February 1948

 

It is agreeable sometimes to turn for a change from dutifully practical aspects of gardening to the consideration of something strange, whether we can hope to grow it for ourselves or not. A wet January evening seems just the time such an indulgence of dreams, and in an instant I found my room (which hitherto had boasted only a few modest bulbs in bowls) filling up with flowers of the queerest colours, shapes, and habits. The first batch to appear thus miraculously conjured out of the air, were all of that peculiar blue-green which one observes in verdigris on an old copper, in a peacock's feather, on the back of a beetle, or in the sea where the shallows meet the deep.

First came a slender South African Ixia viridiflora, with green flowers shot with Cobalt blue and a purple splotch: this I had once grown in a very gritty pan in a cold greenhouse, and was pleased to see again. Then came the tiny sea-green Persian iris, only three inches high, which I had seen piercing its native desert but had never persuaded into producing a single flower here. Then came Delphinium macrocentrum, an East African, which I had never seen at all but which is said to rival the Puya alpestris in colouring.

 

Puya alpestris I knew. A ferocious-looking plant, and reluctant. Seven years I had cherished that thing in a pot, before it finally decided to flower. Then it's threw up a spike and astonished everybody with its wicked-looking peacock trumpets and orange anthers, and side-shoots on which, apparently, humming-birds were supposed to perch and pollinate the flower.

 

And now here it was again, in my room, this time accompanied by the humming-birds which had been lamentably absent when I had flowered it after seven years. There were quite a lot of birds in my room by now, as well as flowers. ForStrelitzia reginae had also arrived, escorted by the little African sun birds which perch and powder their breast feathers with its pollen. It is rare for plants to choose birds as pollinators instead of insects; and here were two of them.Strelitzia reginae itself looked like a bird, a wild, crested, pointed bird, floating on an orange boat under spiky sails of blue and orange. Although it had been called regina after Queen Charlotte the consort of George III, I preferred it under its other name the Bird of Paradise Flower.

 

Then, as a change to homeliness, came clumps of the old primroses I tried so hard to grow in careful mixtures of leaf-mould and loam, but here they were, flourishing happily between the cracks of the floorboards. Jack in the Green, Prince Silverwings, Galligaskins, Tortoiseshell, Cloth of Gold and I saw them there in a wealth I had never been able to achieve, I remembered that the whole primula family was gregarious in its tastes and hated the loneliness of being one solitary, expensive little plant. They like huddling together, unlike the Lichens, which demand so little company that they will grow (in South America at any rate) strung out along the high isolation of telegraph wires.

There seemed indeed no end to the peculiarities of plants, whether they provided special perches for the convenience of their visitors, or turned carnivorous like the pitcher plants. Why was it that the vine grew from left to right in the Northern hemisphere but refused to grow otherwise than from right to left in the Southern. Why was the poppy calledMacounii found only on one tiny Arctic island in the Behring Sea and nowhere else in the world? How had it come there in the first place? In a room now overcrowded with blooms of the imagination such speculations flowed easily, to the exclusion of similar speculations on the equally curious behaviour of men.

 

The walls of the room melted away, giving place to a garden such as the Emperors of China once enjoyed, vast in extent, varied in landscape, a garden in which everything throve and the treasures of the earth were collected in beauty and brotherhood. But a log fell in the fire: a voice said 'This is the BBC Home Service; here is the news,' and I awoke.

 

February 26, 1950

 

A dear neighbour brought me a tussie-mussie this week. The dictionary defines tuzzy-muzzy or tussie-mussie, as a bunch or posy of flowers, a nosegay, and then disobligingly adds that the word is obsolete. I refuse to regard it as obsolete. It is a charming word; I have always used it and shall continue to use it, whatever the great Oxford Dictionarymay say; and shall now take my neighbour's tussie-mussie as a theme to show what ingenuity, taste, and knowledge can produce from a small garden even in February.

 

My neighbour has many difficulties to contend with. She is not young, she is into her seventh decade. She has no help in her house. Her garden is wind-swept, and the soil is a stiff Weald of Kent clay. (Only those who have tried to garden on Wealden clay can appreciate what that means.) A jobbing gardener from time to time is all that she commands. She does most of the work herself. Yet she manages to produce a bunch such as I will now describe to you.

It is composed of at least five different flowers, all perfectly chosen. She goes always for the best, which I am sure is the secret of good gardening: choose always the best of any variety you want to grow. Thus, in the bunch she brought me, the violets were pink violets, the sort called Coeur d'Alsace, and the one Iris Reticulata she put in was the sort called Hercules, which is redder than the familiar purple and gold. The grape-hyacinths were the small sky-blue azureus, which flowers earlier and is prettier than the dark blue later sort. The crocus in her bunch was not the common yellow, but had brown markings on its outside; I think it may be C. susianus or it may be Moonlight but I forgot to ask her. The anemone that she put in must be a freakishly early bloom of Anemone St Bravo, amethyst petals with an electric-blue centre. How wise she is to grow Anemone St Bravo instead of the coarser Anemone St Brigid.

 

The moral of this article, if any newspaper article may have a moral, is that it just shows what you can do if you put your mind to it. I have received many letters saying: 'Do tell us what we can do in a small garden.' My neighbour's tussie-mussie is the answer. She grows those exquisite things in a small, quarter-of-an-acre grassy space under apple trees, and somehow produces a jewelled effect rather like the foreground of Botticelli's Primavera. They are all low and brilliant and tiny; and no more difficult to grow than their more ordinary relations.

 

Some day I must write an article describing the way my neighbour has designed her garden; and also perhaps what she manages to do with her small, unheated greenhouse. You would be surprised.


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