Blog Our Sweet Old Etcetera

Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

Blooming Marvellous

Chelsea Flower Show by Huron Tours & Travel, under a Creative Commons licence

Lizzie MacGregor, our Assistant Librarian, leads me astray.  She slips me gardening magazines, leaves a specially pricey bulb firm’s catalogue on my desk, and sometimes even lures me with offers of extra seedlings from her greenhouse. She brings in flowers from her garden and puts them temptingly in a jug by her desk. And you should see her lovely vegetable garden.  Really, she just wants somebody to share her lifelong weakness, and I’m all too willing to be led. But at heart, I’m an armchair gardener rather than a truly committed greenfinger like Lizzie. And I’m realising there is a telling theme to my favourite poems here about gardening and gardeners:  the ones I love most are about those quiet moments before you do the hard graft, or after you’ve smugly finished, or when the weather means you can’t possibly be expected to do anything at all. So if you can’t get to the Chelsea Flower Show, draw up your armchair and join me for a little vicarious gardening.

Muriel Stuart’s poem ‘The Seed-Shop’ – dig out the Kettillonia pamphlet of her poems – is sombre in its recognition that the plants may survive the gardener, but its last line has all the joy of running your fingers through the potential of a packet of new seed: ‘Here I can blow a garden with my breath / And in my hand a forest lies asleep’.

Edward Thomas’ ‘Sowing’  - ‘It was a perfect day / For sowing; just / As sweet and dry was the ground / As tobacco-dust’ – perfectly captures the moment you sit and look at rows of seeds sown and labelled and full of promise.

But Theodore Roethke’s poems in The Lost Son, about the world of his family’s market garden with its huge yet fragile commercial greenhouses on which livelihood depended, are perhaps the most moving gardening poems I’ve ever read.  Sure, they’re not only about gardening;  but they come steeped in a world that measures gardening as the success or failure of living.  ‘The Big Wind’ is about the fight against the storm, with a final line of heart-shaking tranquillity as the greenhouse makes it safely through the night:  ‘she sailed until the calm morning / carrying her full cargo of roses’. If you’ve ever lain awake listening to cherished seedlings and cold frames being smashed to pieces in high winds, you’ll instantly understand the power of Roethke’s storm that reaches far beyond physical damage.

So if you need a little frivolity as an antidote, try some Ogden Nash (‘My garden will never make me famous, / I’m a horticultural ignoramus’).  Or perhaps Anon’s view of why gardeners are so keen on discussing bedding:

In the Garden of Eden sat Adam,
Disporting himself with his madam.
                  She was filled with elation,
                  For in all of creation,
There was only one man – and she had’m.

I may never have a vegetable garden like Lizzie’s.  Nor a show garden like the ones at Chelsea.  Nor am I likely to create a green, sculpted world like Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta garden, nor a sculpture park like Jupiter Artland, nor commission Charles Jencks to shape our back green into sinuous curves;  but at least I can settle back with a cup of tea, those ludicrously tempting plant catalogues and a stack of poems.

(And if anybody has some courgette seedlings going spare, please could you get in touch?)

Lillias Fraser
Reader Development Officer