By Vita Sackville-West
June 15, 1947
In a recent article I referred briefly to the fact that many privately-owned gardens are now regularly thrown open to the public, and as this remark appears to have aroused some interest, I thought I might take this opportunity of amplifying it. I made it in a desire to urge keen gardeners to see as many gardens as possible, for the sake of the practical hints they might pick up there, apart from the pleasure they might gain.
Nothing could be more useful to the amateur gardener than to observe other people's ideas, other people's successes, and other people's failures. At flower shows, such as the Chelsea Show, one knows that every plant has been specially grown, richly fed, and luxuriously prepared for the great moment, thus arousing our suspicion that its grower has sat up with it night after night, holding an umbrella over it when too heavy a thunder-shower threatened its petals; ready with a hot-water bottle lest a late frost should come with a cold breath; and in many ways cosseting it for the supreme peak of its life when it must be exposed to the gaze of the King and Queen and all the Royal Family at a morning preview, and then to the expert criticism of Fellows of the Royal Horticultural Society during the afternoon.
A plant in a garden is different from this: it has had to take its chance. It has been ordinarily grown. It has suffered from our common climate even as we all have to suffer. Seeing it grow in somebody else's garden, we can assess its normal performance; we can then decide whether we ourselves like it and whether we dare to attempt it or not. These gardens now open to our wandering inspection are widespread and various. They range over all the counties of England, Scotland and Wales. I have been looking through the England and Wales list, which runs so generously into seventy pages. What enticements are therein offered! Who could resist the desire to penetrate without delay into precincts with such romantic names as Hutton John, Heronden Eastry, Nether Lypiatt, Bevinton Lordship, St John Jerusalem, Castle Drogo, The House in the Wood, or Flower Lilies? All poetry is there, suggestive and evocative. One could go and sit in those gardens on a summer evening, and imagine what one's own garden (and one's life) might be. And again, who could fail to respond to the magic of an invitation to "Magna Carta Island, until dusk," or to a garden mysteriously named The Isle of Thorns?
Nor is this all. At Tinker's Corner, for instance, you are offered tea and music; Bickleigh Castle provides flood-lighting and a moated Saxon chapel, modestly adding 'romantic interest', which one can well believe. Little Whyley Hall somewhat startlingly tenders not only cups of tea but big-game herds. You can see Shelley's birthplace and Rudyard Kipling's house. You will be given 'strawberries if ripe' at Kempsons in June. At Old Westwell you can see fur rabbits; peach blossom, topiary, and rare shrubs are elsewhere suggested for your enjoyment.
June 26, 1949
I am no blind believer in the 'improved' modern flower: I don't like delphiniums with stalks like tree-trunks; I don't like roses with no scent and a miserable constitution; but for the Russell lupins and the bearded irises one must make an exception. Everyone knows, and grows, the lupins; not everyone, I think, has yet realised the extreme beauty of the irises. So as June is just the moment to see them in flower I thought I would remind you of their beauty and their many advantages.
Their beauty is beyond dispute. No velvet can rival the richness of their falls or, let us say, it is to velvet only that we may compare them. That is surely enough to claim for any flower? They suggest velvet, pansies, wine – anything you like, that possesses a texture as well as colour. (Wine, to a connoisseur, does possess texture.) Then, as to their advantages, they are the easiest plants to grow. All they ask is a well-drained, sunny place so that their rhizomes may get the best possible baking; a scatter of lime in autumn or in spring; and division every third year.
It may sound tiresome and laborious to dig up and divide plants every third year, but in the case of the iris it is a positive pleasure. It means that they increase so rapidly. Relatively expensive to buy in the first instance, by the end of the second or third year you have so large a clump from a single rhizome that you can break them up, spread them out, and even give them away. The best time to do this is immediately after they have finished flowering - in other words, at the end of June or beginning of July. Do not bury the rhizome, but leave it showing above the ground; this, again is in order to let the sun reach it. The plant knows this, however, and will push itself up even if you do cover it over; but why give it that extra bit of trouble, when it already has a great deal to do?
Colours must, of course, be left to the individual taste. Those which we may roughly call reddish include Cresset, Senlac, Mrs Valerie West, Marechal Ney, red Rover and Cheerio, which has nothing wrong with it except its name. The wine- coloured ones include the magnificent Betelgeuse, Melchior and Ambassador. Cinnabar is a rich pansy-purple, very tall. All of these range in price from 1s. 6d. To 3s. 6d. There are also many fine yellows; but the best thing is to obtain a catalogue from a nursery that specializes in irises, say Messers. Wallace, Tunbridge Wells; or the Orpington Nursery, Orpington, Kent. The descriptions are not misleading, for no adjective could be too extravagant. It is only you that will be.