When writer Vita Sackville-West first fell in love with Sissinghurst (in Kent County, southeast of London, England) in 1930, then a ruin used to incarcerate French prisoners of war in the mid-1700s then later as a workhouse in the 1800s, her son Nigel aged 13 asked, “But we haven’t got to live here?” Lacking his mother’s vision, he saw it for it was – a barely habitable stone ruins surrounded by a heap of rubbish. But live there they did, the first five years with neither electricity nor running water.
With her husband Harold Nicolson, historian and diplomat, Vita developed the now world famous six-acre garden. He designed the rather formal layout and she planted it in a relaxed and overflowing abundance. The garden, walls and moat contain not a single right angle.
Sissinghurst is 10 garden “rooms” linked by paths and vistas. Visitors enter the garden through a central archway in the “front range,” part of the original building dating from 1490. Along one side of the front courtyard is the Purple Border with climbing roses clothing the inner side of the front range.
The view from the pink-red brick Tudor Tower, reached by a spiral wooden staircase, provides an orientation of the garden’s layout and is a “must” at the beginning of a visit to Sissinghurst – and again at the end as a summation of where you have been and seen.
The Yew Walk parallels the front range on the far side of the Tower Lawn and leads to the Rose Garden to the south and the White Garden to the north. The Rose Garden is planted with old-fashioned roses along with iris and clematis to extend the season. In its centre is Harold’s “rondel,” a circle of lawn delineated by a formal clipped circle of yew hedge with openings leading into the gardens.
Past the Rose Garden, one enters the Italian style Lime Walk with its canopy of carefully clipped lindens under planted with spring bulbs. Impatiens in Tuscan terracotta pots give it colour through the season.
The South Cottage was the first building made habitable by the Nicolsons, and its intimate garden the first area planted. A “hot garden,” of yellows, reds and oranges, it is backed by the dark green of yews and a riot of colour in all seasons.
The Moat Walk, banked by azaleas and the hazelnuts of “the nuttery” on its south side, leads to the two remaining arms of the medieval moat that once surrounded the property. In the southeast corner is the formal rectangular Herb Garden, fronted by a thyme lawn. So acute was Vita’s sense of smell, that with her eyes closed she could identify any of the over one hundred herbs it contains.
The roughly rectangular area, once surrounded by the moat, is now a grassy orchard of flowering cherry and apple trees, filled with daffodils and narcissus in spring and later wild flowers, and cut across by several mown paths.
Sissinghurst is most famous for its White Garden, composed of white flowers and pale grey foliage within a classical pattern of low boxwood hedges. The paths are paved with old bricks. The White Garden is also “the most carefully orchestrated” of the gardens. Vita was said to have calculated the “likely appearance week by week as different plants of different heights flowered at different times.” Here is the origin of Sissinghurst White lungwort (Pulmonaria) that does so well in our prairie gardens. Visitors will not be disappointed.
In May 1938, for the price of a shilling admission, the garden was first opened to the public under the National Garden Scheme. Vita died in 1962. In 1967 Harold gave Sissinghurst to the National Trust in whose care it remains.
Sissinghurst lives up to its reputation. It is, indeed, “worth the trip."
Sara will be hosting a garden tour to England this May. You are cordially invited to attend her presentation, Great Gardens of Great Britain at McNally Robinson’s Book Store on Thursday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. For more information, contact Ruth at 1-888-778-2378 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
— This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (www.saskperennial.ca; email@example.com; NEW www.facebook.com/saskperennial). Check out our Bulletin Board or Calendar for upcoming garden information sessions, workshops and tours: Feb 24, 7:30AGM with ‘Dividing perennials the YouTube way’ to follow.