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E-Garden Almanac: In Pursuit of My Sissinghurst

E-Garden Almanac

The E-Garden Almanac is the push-button, real human journal of Kelly D. Norris. All errors, grammatic grievances, and opinions are that of the author. Kelly is a freelance writer and Master Gardener from southwest Iowa. His passion and obsession with horticulture, plants, and gardening embodies nearly every function of his life. The E-Garden Almanac serves as the web extension of his columns, articles, and lectures.
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Sunday, January 25, 2009

In Pursuit of My Sissinghurst

A recent conversation with a colleague prompted me to think about how I make gardens, present and future. A wise person told me once to find inspiration in everything, to seek it out in whatever was around, and borrow what you could make off with your eyes.

I guess Pam Duthie often says "steal with your eyes". The world is full of ideas all waiting to be spun in a thousand new ways, particularly so in the making of gardens. That's why I don't feel too ashamed looking back through the writings of William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll, and Vita Sackville-West, all saints in the canon of garden manor writers of the early 20th century. Of the three, Robinson probably writes the best. Jekyll certainly wins when it comes to original ideas. But Vita trumps all because she collated her predecessors' ideas into a living legacy known as Sissinghurst.

But don't think for a minute that I'm starry eyed with thoughts of my own English garden. Sissinghurst, while obviously a beloved paragon, represents much more than just a collection of progressive ideas of its heyday. It was the culmination of Vita's gardening life, something she wrote about many times. While Sissinghurst was the largest garden she and her husband Harold created, her first garden was at Long Barn not far from Sevenoaks in Kent. Since she wasn't a childhood gardener and lacked professional training, Sevenoaks was a studio of sorts and a blank canvas. Vita gardened in a very practical way, something that made her popular with the readers of her weekly gardening column. She advocated experimentation, ruthlessness, serendipity, while all in the confines of an elaborate scheme. She admits that she made many mistakes at Sevenoaks, blunders that could've been avoided with a little more thought and ideas that just didn't quite fall into place. But it was a start, the workings of an expressive drive that would soon mature into its own. When she got to Sissinghurst, it did.

I wish we thought about gardening more like Vita did almost 75 years ago. Why does it have to be so formulaic and complex? Sure we live in a complex world but isn't it complex by nature and default? I'm a horticultural scientist. For me gardening is a way to explore nature, to curiously observe things like genetic diversity and ecology in my own backyard. Those are the things that fascinate me, and I like to think of my garden as my own little plant zoo or a laboratory for my creative expressions. Gardening has no greater context than that which we give it. Your way of gardening is different than mine and your garden probably shows it. But in the midst of drumming up the gardening bandwagon, we've lost a few green-hearted folks, those who just want to be outside amidst something of their own creation. The specifics don't matter so much, though they certainly revere and appreciate them. That's why Sissinghurst is so great. For scholars like me, it's a successful experiment in art and plantsmanship. For gardeners seeking ideas, it's a mother lode of inspirational moments. For people with an affinity for green, it's heaven.

I think if she were alive today, Vita Sackville-West might pen a critical review of horticulture. But what an advocate I imagine she'd be. She'd be a diplomat for the professionals, an envoy to the enthusiast, and a celebrity of great renown just like her garden. Though many may not know her name or even remember the great things she did, the fact that she did them serves as a reminder that when tucking in those annuals in the spring, we're in good company. Gardening is okay.

In the spring, I'll tuck in a few annuals at my Sevenoaks, beds and borders full of mistakes, error, and flaws in judgment. I'm growing some blunders too. My gardens certainly aren't the masterpieces I had in mind, but I grew up in them learning along the way. I'm proud of that, even though I take heed of Vita's ruthlessness as often as I can. I guess my Sissinghurst is still to come.


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