From accusations of election tampering to online bullying and damage to our mental health, social media companies are deservedly under pressure to take more responsibility for material that gets published on their platforms. Thankfully, however, some social media is being used positively – educating us, entertaining us – and even bringing us garden history – in ways that wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago.
One of my favourite Twitter accounts belongs to Vita Sackville-West, well known as the co-creator of the famous gardens at Sissinghurst, Kent (now managed by the National Trust). From 1947 until 1961, a year before she died, Sackville-West wrote a weekly gardening column for The Observer newspaper describing the development of her own garden, explaining how to cultivate a wide range of plants, and responding to readers’ gardening queries.
Her column also exposes a larger than life personality with strong opinions about certain plants – especially roses. In one memorable article she berates someone in a neighbouring town for planting a rose with luridly pink flowers (the variety is American Pillar) a rose she says ‘should be forever abolished from our gardens’. It’s hard to imagine any garden commentator today being quite so forthright about a member of the public’s choice of flowers – perhaps not least because of the backlash they would experience on social media. But she is as tough with her own plant choices and quick to acknowledge mistakes, continually urging her readers to be ruthless and remove planting combinations that don’t work.
So who is behind her Twitter account? It’s the project of former head gardener and greenhouse manager/propagator of the Morris Arboretum at the University of Pennsylvania. Their motivation to tweet on her behalf is both out of admiration for her work as a ‘plantswoman and innovator, at least fifty years ahead of her time’; plus their enjoyment of the character revealed in the columns. ‘She’s a hoot’, they say.
The tweets are taken from four anthologies of Sackville-West’s articles published in the 1950s, beginning with In Your Garden (1951) and now all out of print, together with Some Flowers (1937), Letters to Virginia Woolf (1923-41), Passenger to Teheran (1926) and Twelve Days in Persia (1928). Photographs of the plants she discusses have been added to the text by the gardeners, which is immensely helpful in making the writing accessible to anyone who doesn’t know much about gardening.
One advantage of ‘drip feeding’ Sackville-West’s writing in a series of tweets is the constant reminder of her deep expertise about gardens which goes far beyond the cultivation requirements of individual plants. The effect of light and the way it falls at certain times of year is considered, as is choosing plants for their form, scale and colour. I’d also forgotten an extraordinary episode about the placing and planting up of a Ming dynasty vase – a reminder of the class divide between Sackville-West and most of her readers.
Sharing their immense plant knowledge with great generosity, the gardeners of the Morris Arboretum offer afresh to a new audience this important testimony from one of England’s finest garden makers.
@thegardenvsw Vita Sackville-West on Twitter