Vita loved to study flowers. Often she would “cut a flower from one part of the garden and carry it around, trying it’s colour against other plants already growing there until she satisfied herself that she had found the right combination’’. ( Philippa Nicolson, V. Sackville- West’s Garden book 1987 ) Eventually, they would find their way into her beloved writing room in the tower and were placed in small vases as single specimens for further study, or one or two naturalistic bunches. This tradition has remained ever since and today you will see a number of vases on her desk, the Library and also decorating the tables in the Granary restaurant.
As you might wonder, there is a great deal of work undertaken behind the scenes to produce enough garden flowers to fill all these vases throughout the season. Although the arrangements on display are made from flowers usually found in the garden, we try to limit cutting flowers from the garden itself, and instead set aside space in our nursery especially for this purpose. This includes a perennial bed and two larger areas to grow annuals, biennials and bulbs. These plants range from the traditional cut flower like the scented Sweet Pea, to the more exotic annuals like the brightly coloured South African Zinnia. Others plants to name but a few, include Snapdragons, Lupins, Foxgloves, Dahlias, Chrysanthemums, Sweet Rocket and foliage plants like Pittosporum.
Preparations begin in Mid Summer with sowing of biennial species, while areas of ground are being cleared and prepared ready for future planting out. Later on in the year, plants that have finished flowering get cut down or removed ready for the whole process of re-cultivation to begin the following spring, by which time all the annuals have been sown and the Dahlia tubers have been lifted, divided, labelled, potted on into bark before (frost arrives), and are safely protected in the glasshouse until the end of spring. So, by the end of May everything is more or less in the ground and growing, ready and waiting for their moment of glory.
In terms of the fun part of picking and arranging, well this duty rightly falls to the Head Gardener or Assistant Head Gardener. However, as the Assistant Head Gardener was off on her holidays the other week and indeed every time she is absent, this task is given to me…., Hooray! Because the flowers must be fresh for the weekend and hopefully last until the end of the following week, they are arranged on a Friday. Enough stems must be cut to fill up three large vases, and a few smaller jars, excluding the ticket office, which needs a further three arrangements. But, before any vases can be filled, they must all be emptied, cleaned and stored etc. All in all this leads to several journeys up and down the tower steps and back and forth across to the Library. Eventually and still with enough time to complete the Friday tidy, the job is done, or at least almost, for over the following week each vase must be checked daily, toped up and tweaked if necessary. It is, of course worth all the effort and helps bring the outdoor magic inside.
Lastly, but by no means least, I can’t forget to mention the dedicated Flower Ladies. Our helpful and very much appreciated volunteers who come to pick all the flowers for the restaurant table displays, on a Thursday, only to return without fail on the Friday to arrange all the buckets full of flowers they have carefully picked and plunged into water the day before. Well done them.
Jo Jones – Gardener