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Gardening may seem out of place in this list. It isn’t as rigorous as boxing, as rule-bound as baseball, or as tediously competitive as fishing. It isn’t a game or an athletic contest, nor is it an endeavour to kill wild game of one sort or another. But it is an exercise taken out of doors, which places it squarely in the category of “sport,” at least according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, surely the most misnamed book on my shelf, given that it is the size and weight of a boulder.
Among the obsolete definitions of sport is “amorous dalliance,” which is a pity since it seems as accurate a definition of gardening as any I’ve ever found.
I’m indulging myself this morning by dallying amorously with some of the garden writers I most adore: Gertrude Jekyll, Katharine White, Eleanor Perényi, Karel Capek. The opening words in this particular Treasury are given to Henry Ward Beecher, who wrote Plain and Pleasant Talk about Fruits, Flowers and Farming in 1859. An American clergyman, abolitionist, and social reformer, he is infamous for his alleged affair with a married woman, which precipitated one of the most notorious adultery trials of the 19th century. He was also the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the second best-selling book of the 19th century (after the Bible).
“There is no writing so detestable as so-called fine writing,” writes the plain-spoken Beecher. “We especially detest fine writing about rural affairs—all the senseless gabble about dew, and zephyrs, and stars, and sunrises—about the flowers, and green trees, golden grain and lowing herds, etc. We always suspect a design upon our admiration, and take care not to admire.”
“Painted emptiness” he calls it. But, he admits, now and then somebody writes as though they know something, and this is what I look for, too: a voice that rises not only from observation and contemplation, but from doing. A voice gritty from close proximity to the soil.
If I had to choose one, I’d say, No! Let me chose three! Jamaica Kincaid. Colette. Vita Sackville-West. Novelists all three, so the writing is certainly fine, though not overblown. Painted, but not empty. More like Russian dolls: lovely when you first come to them, more delightful and endearing the closer you look.
Vita Sackville-West is a particular favourite. Author of seventeen novels and eleven collections of poetry, including her famous long narrative poem The Land, she was also a lifelong gardener who published nine gardening books and wrote a weekly garden column in The Sunday Observer for fourteen years. In these columns, now collected as In Your Garden and In Your Garden Again, she promoted three horticultural principles: ruthlessness, untidiness—let self-seeded plants grow where they will—and vision, by which she meant, have an architectural plan, a colour plan, and a seasonal plan.
“I can imagine,” she writes in a January column, “a border arranged entirely in purple and mauve—phlox, stocks, pansies, clematis Jackmanii trained over low hoops—all planted in bays between great promontories of the plum-coloured sumach Rhus cotinus foliis purpureis, but many people, thinking this too mournful, might prefer a scheme in red and gold . . . The possibilities of variation are manifold, but on the main point one must remain adamant: the alternation between colour and solidity, decoration and architecture, frivolity and seriousness.”
Outside, my lawn in greening. The chickens are happily devouring the grass after their two-month fast. It is New Year’s Day, the warmest start to a year in a century. I could be out there edging the beds or trimming the tufts of perennial grass or covering up the crocus leaves that are poking through the leaf mulch.
But that would be serious work and I’m inclined to take Vita’s words to heart. After all, she was as famous for her unconventional affair with Virginia Woolf as she was for her poems or her gardens at Sissinghurst.
“Gardening, unlike mathematics, is not an exact science,” she writes. “It would be dull if it were.”
Which brings me to another definition of “sport,” one securely grounded in the garden. In the world of botany, a sport is a plant or part of a plant that exhibits some abnormal variation, usually in form or colour. Suddenly, a plant throws up a flower of a different hue or one branch of a trailing rose inexplicably begins to climb. Mutations, say the scientists who propagate the peculiarities into new cultivars. But those who first named such anomalies must have seen them as amusements. Diversions. Jests of nature. The progeny of some mysterious amorous dalliance.
“A friend of mine,” writes Vita, “reproaches me from time to time for making gardening sound too easy. My optimism, she says, is misleading.”
But who can help but be optimistic when January is green and beckoning; when there may not be zephyrs but The Farmer's holsteins are lowing happily in the field; when even a garden offers such good sport.