Late summer at Sissinghurst

Sissinghurst, now owned by the National Trust, the former home and exceptional gardens of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson

From ‘The Gardens of England and Ireland’ by Patrick Taylor

The garden at Sissinghurst, famous as it is, has become for many people more an idea, a myth, than reality. Yet to visit the garden (especially when it is not overrun with visitors) remains a thrilling pleasure. The strength of the design, the beauty of the planting and the standards of practical gardening are all marvelous. It is true and regrettable that the unconventional life of the garden’s makers, Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, is of more allure to some visitors than the beauty of the place. But none of this should draw attention from the Nicolsons’ most remarkable achievement – the creation of a great garden

Birth of a Garden

They bought Sissinghurst in 1930 when it was a decaying if romantic ruin – ‘big, broken down and sodden”, as Harold Nicolson recorded in his diary. One of the earliest photographs of Sissinghurst, taken in March 1931, shows Vita Sackville -West digging a new border by the castle tower – long before they were able to live in the crumbling buildings. They were not novices, for they had already made (with the help of Sir Edward Lutyens) an excellent garden at their previous house, Long Barn, also in Kent, and were admirers of such gardeners as Lawrence Johnson at Hidcote Manor, Heather Muir at Kiftsgate Court and William Robinson at Gravetye Manor. At Sissinghurst they used the scattered buildings and old walls as the atmospheric framework for a garden of compartments embellished with an ever-growing collection of plants.

Vita Sackville-West was an experimenter – rediscovering the beauty of old shrub roses, for example, but also willing to experiment with a cheap packet of mixed annual seeds from Woolworths (a failure, as she candidly confessed in her journal). Her lively and discerning quest was recorded in a series of articles, “In Your Garden”, which she wrote for The Observer. They remain among the most attractive and valuable garden journalism ever written.

The excitement of the garden comes from he contrasting identity of the planted enclosures separated by hedges of high walls ad linked by paths, vistas or passages. In their harmonious progression the eye is often drawn by an eye-catcher, a distant gate or a fine plant; the strong framework is often blurred by planting and brilliant colour schemes soothed by an intervening cool corridor or mesmerising rondel of yew. The beauty of the famous White Garden comes not from its colour scheme (best at night when public visitors cannot see it) but from the serene pattern of he box hedge parterre which has all the austere and harmonious simplicity of some Islamic patio.

The Cottage Garden, below the building where Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West had their bedrooms, is only a cottage garden by name for it deploys flamboyant red, oranges and yellows chosen with aristocratic panache. Here, as almost everywhere in the garden, the planting has been altered since their time, but the spirit of the place is honoured. Newly fashionable grasses are to be seen but it is interesting to note that dahlias, a favourite of Harold Nicolson’s, were used in the original scheme at a time when smart taste generally thought them vulgar. He and Vita Sackville-West are often thought of as snobs. In some ways, they were, but not in gardening. There is an independence of mind in what they did where a snob would be looking over his shoulder.

Zestful Spirit

Much has been written of Sissinghurst and its owners but nothing can quite compare the visitor for the impact of the garden itself. Although Vita Sackville-West dies in 1962 and Harold Nicolson in 1968, their garden remains fresh and original. It is this that is perhaps the greatest testimonial to their gardening skills; they devised a style of gardening which allows change while preserving its essence. The admirable team of National Trust gardeners who now care for it so meticulously have added al sorts of plants unknown to Vita Sackville-West but have maintained her irrepressibly zestful spirit.

Gardens have become famous for all sorts of reasons, not all of them worthy. In the end , it is hard to imagine any visitor to Sissinghurst failing to be moved by the beauty of the place.

Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens are owned by the National Trust and can be found at Sissinghurst, Near Cranbrook in Kent. 

These pictures were taken last August (2012). Looking through them today, and appreciating the very late start to the growing season we have had this year, many of the plants shown in flower will be blooming in our September gardens now. Now if I can only find my photographs from Great Dixter… 

One thought on “Late summer at Sissinghurst

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