Gardening at Sissinghurst

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Oh, my aching muscles...

Sissinghurst: Garden of romance, beauty and inspiration
Text and photographs by Tony Lord

Hardback, 168 pages.
ISBN 0-02-860389-3
$40 (U.S.)
Published by Macmillan/A Simon &  Schuster Macmillan Co. ©1995

It’s taken more than 50 years, but someone has finally written a book that transcends the unconventional lives of writers Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, to talk about the garden they created together at Sissinghurst, from 1930 to 1962.

Not by any means is this garden, nor its British aristocratic founders, a secret. Neither has it, over the years, been considered among the world’s foremost gardens, since it has been described as notably un-British and simplistic in style and appearance.

What most likely brings nearly 200,000 people to Sissinghurst each year is a grander picture of a garden that is seemingly perfect because of its simplicity, enhanced by the underlying elements of romance, spirit and beauty. On this premise, the garden has much to do with the unique partnership of its founders, as well as their horticultural and literary legacy.
From the first, “Gardening at Sissinghurst” author Tony Lord strives to point out that this book does not attempt what so many authors have accomplished before: to tell the story of Vita and Harold. Yet, only a few pages later, he acquiesces, stating, “Sissinghurst’s greatest inheritance is the vision of Harold and Vita, without whom the garden would not have existed. It survives today as a poignant reminder of their lives…”

With more than 175 colorful photographs (also by Lord) and watercolor sketches of its various “garden rooms” (a term coined by Vita), we as gardeners are able to gain new insight into the lives of these prominent figures and the reasons behind the renovation of Sissinghurst’s buildings and farmland.

The author explains in-depth about the choices of planting. He tells us how each impatiens, columbine or lupine has been replaced or exchanged over the years since it was originally planted, and how it now differs from the planting “in Vita or Harold’s time.” Lord also tells us of how, under ownership of the National Trust, garden keepers have toiled to retain the vision sought by its founders. Each new plant, every addition or replaced structure, Lord tells us, is a carefully thought-out decision.

While “Gardening at Sissinghurst,” is about the lives of Harold and Vita, especially, it is about Vita. Vita Sackville-West was a renowned novelist and poet who wrote often about gardening, and with whom Harold credits half of the garden’s creation, but all of its inspiration. Upon her death in 1962, Nicolson installed a memorial that reads, “Here lived V. Sackville-West who made this garden.” (After the cover, it is the first photograph presented in the book.) Nicolson once explained that his own contribution was unimportant, that what mattered was Vita’s personification in planting Sissinghurst. “It was her garden,” he said.

This foundation—of cooperative involvement and of Vita’s inspiration—is palpable and the central theme behind “Gardening at Sissinghurst.” It is a topic broached again and again by nearly every decision made here—from the 1992 installation of a mechanized gate to restrict an increasing number of visitors, to the conscientious employment of a team of gardeners, to Vita and Harold’s continued involvement at Sissinghurst all these years.
Above all else, this garden retains that simple elegance, created from Nicolson’s designs. Interestingly, those designs were derived, in part, by having to comply with various structural limitations of Sissinghurst.
It is that carefully designed style, combined with Vita’s talent for planting, that makes Sissinghurst something other than a typically English garden.
Notes author Jane Brown (among those credited for telling the other story of Vita and Harold’s unconventional marriage), “There are no white-painted seats, no Versailles tubs, there is no iris nor laburnum tunnel (at Sissinghurst) … There are plenty of such things in other gardens.”

As time has changed this garden, so has it changed public perception of what a garden should be. For a property that was once questioned by National Trust members for its appropriateness in relation to British society, Sissinghurst’s simple elegance is now viewed as among the most natural and treasured by gardeners worldwide.

“I for one do not want to follow a new fashion until there is one that can match Sissinghurst in beauty,” admits Lord. Yet it can hardly remain the garden it once was. After all, change—for us all—is  inevitable and necessary.

Lord does an excellent job of explaining and capturing the essence of Sissinghurst, of the dream of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, as the garden continues today. Tomorrow, surely, it will be different. Still, we can hope that Sissinghurst… somehow… will stay forever the same.

NWGN archive story published December 1996

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