Portrait of a Garden

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One of the great things that Steve and I did on our trip to Kent this summer was visit Sissinghurst Castle Garden.  I first heard of Sissinghurst when I was living in Pasadena, California in the 80’s.  My next door neighbours, Chris and Armand had a pair of Airedale terriers named Windsor and Vita.  Vita was named after Vita Sackville-West, an English novelist and gardener.  I delved a bit at the time and learned about her unusual marriage to Harold Nicholson and the amazing garden they created together at their home, Sissinghurst.  I resolved then and there to visit one day.

Sissinghurst Castle was once a splendid mansion built for Sir Richard Baker in the mid-16th century. The moated Tudor house, set high on a ridge above the Vale of Kent, was one of the first buildings in England to be constructed of brick.

By 1800, however, the house was neglected and decayed. At this time the building was partially demolished leaving substantial fragments for use as barns, stables and cottages for labourers.

Over the next hundred years Sissinghurst slowly degenerated and would probably be a brown plaqueruin today if it had not been rescued in 1930 by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson. The couple were both writers, she a poet and novelist and he an historian, biographer and diarist. They bought the romantic remains, repaired the brick structures and then gradually began to create a garden between the old walls and buildings.

Harold Nicolson planned the garden but it was Vita Sackville-West who devised the inspired planting schemes and carried out the work. She had an abhorrence of regimented rows of flowers and carefully grouped the plants according to colour, texture and season.

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Harold and Vita, 1960

Sissinghurst is a sophisticated garden, with the plantings deliberately varied from one part to another. The gardens are laid out in ten distinct “rooms,” each with a different feel, built around the remnants of a once-grand Elizabethan manor house. The formal herb garden and paved lime walk contrasts with the unmown orchard; the cottage garden boasts a profusion of flowers in hot colours, while the white garden eliminates all colours but white and green. Harold’s taste leaned toward the classical, with its geometrical patterns and symmetrical arrangement of steps, paths, pots and statuary, while Vita preferred a more romantic approach. She filled the beds and enclosures he created with a profusion of plants that might spill onto or creep over the path – but the hedges were always neatly trimmed and plantings kept free of weeds with a mulch of spent hops.

The focal point of the garden is the four-storey Elizabethan prospect tower with its two octagonal turrets.

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A spiral staircase leads to the top of the tower past the cluttered room where Vita Sackville-West wrote.  Ssssshhh!  A bit blurry because I wasn’t supposed to take a photo.  But how could I resist?

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The view from the roof is one of the loveliest in southern England.  The gardens are truly amazing and at their most gorgeous in the summertime.

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Sissinghurst Garden is owned and managed by the National Trust.  There was a medieval tournament set up on the outer lawn.

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We spent a lovely afternoon on a perfect English summer’s day wandering around the grounds and through the garden ‘rooms’.  Carefully contrived vistas criss-cross the garden terminating at a statue, a poplar or a distant view of the Weald. On either side of the walks and vistas smaller gardens open unexpectedly.

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The charm of the garden owes much to the Tudor buildings which provide a romantic backdrop to the planting.

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Against the brick buildings roses and honeysuckle climb to the eaves.

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There is a formal herb garden with its medicinal and aromatic plants.

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Echinacea

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The Cottage Garden retains its original colour scheme of sunset hues.

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The White Garden is probably the most famous of Sissinghurst’s plantings.  Here all the blossoms, including lavender, old roses, clematis and a double primrose are white and much of the foliage is grey.

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Oast Houses

Early this autumn I read ‘From Violet to Vita’ and reread ‘Portrait of a Marriage’.  I think I’ll save these books and my thoughts for a future post.

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3 thoughts on “Portrait of a Garden

  1. i sure wish more people knew about…buy nothing day. my husband and i were discussing this subject saying how…what if hardly anyone showed up for Black Thursday…wouldn’t the stores have to re-think dropping prices and wondering, how many will buy, buy, buy. good thoughts you dropped in here. thanks, wanda

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