Sissinghurst Castle Garden
Explore one of the world's most celebrated garden estates.
2014, St. Martin’s Press
"It’s a garden in a romantic place,” writes Sarah Raven, co-author of Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden. “There is very little else like it in the world…its fountains of roses, voluptuous, delicious-smelling, out-of-control geysers of flowers…”
Pour yourself a cup of tea (English, of course) and settle in for an enchanting exploration of Sissinghurst, the celebrated 450-acre English estate and gardens restored in the 1930s and 40s by the late author and horticulturist Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold.
Just don’t get too comfortable. You’ll also want a pen and paper at hand, so you can make a list of plants to grow and design ideas to try as you browse the book, which features selections from Sackville-West's archived work and new, additional commentary by Sarah Raven.
Raven isn’t just a writer and a respected British gardener in her own right; she’s also married to Sackville-West’s grandson and lives on the grounds at Sissinghurst, so she’s able to give readers an inside look at this historic and enchanting greenspace.
Raven quotes Sackville-West generously, dipping into gardening columns written for a British newspaper and pieces contributed to gardening books and English magazines, as well as personal garden notebooks and letters written between Vita and Harold.
The descriptions of the gardens at Sissinghurst will make you swoon. The perfume from a hedge of sweet briar roses, Sackville-West once wrote, “[s]wells out towards you, like a sail filling suddenly with a breeze off those Spice Islands.”
Winter-flowering aconites, she wrote, when glazed with frost resemble “tiny crystallized apricots, like the preserved fruits one used to get given for Christmas." When the sun emerges, they shed their “rimey sugar coating” to reveal buttercup-yellow petals.
But Sackville-West is also discriminating, not prone to love every plant, and her expert opinions can be endearingly honest. “Some people love the scent of phlox; to me, it suggest pigsties, not that I dislike pigsties, being country-born…”
Plants to avoid? She detests privet and laurel, “dark, dank, dusty and dull,” but she’s equally passionate about her favorites. Foxtail lilies, she enthuses, are the color of “cathedral spire[s] flushed warm in the sunset,” while the perennial Gentian sino-ornata, also called autumn gentian or showy Chinese gentian, looks like “the very best bit of blue sky landing by parachute on earth.”
As I read, my list of plants to try in my garden grew and grew. I want to plant witch hazel, which bears spidery winter blooms. Sackville-West, we learn, loved to cut them and keep them in water on her desk.
I’m also eager to try crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis) that she grew for its crown of orange blossoms that “glowed like lanterns in the shadows….”
She also passionate, too about growing velvety bearded iris along paths of flat, gray flagstones and a riot of colorful zinnias—except for the magenta ones, which she felt were too coarse to deserve a spot in her gardens.
Raven gives us chapters on Sackville-West’s indoor and container gardens as well as her recommendations for cut flowers. A room without even a single vase of blooms, she felt, was “soulless.” She promised Lenten roses (Helleborus orientalis) make long-lasting bouquets if the stems were split; she adored peonies, especially ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ and ‘Duchesse de Nemours.’
As they grew older, Vita and Harold hired gardeners to help them care for their enormous estate and by the 1940s, they began opening Sissinghurst to the public. Vita died in 1962; Harold passed a few years later.
By 1967, Sissinghurst was placed under the management of the National Trust. Today, Raven says, the estate’s Cottage Garden still “…[brims] with sunset colours,” while snowy violas and silvery lambs ears (Stachys lanata) thrive in the White Garden. Vita's Chinese bell flowers (Platycodon grandiflorum) still grow in the Purple Border. My only wish is that this book contained more photographs of these lovely places.
Still, Raven gives us a fascinating look at a fascinating gardener. Sackville-West was passionate about packing plants into every border, nook and cranny, but Raven says that the gardens’ contemporary caretakers have had to make some changes.
The plants that once spilled over garden paths can no longer be allowed to grow unchecked, she notes, since unsuspecting visitors might trip and shrubby roses must be clipped to avoid scratching arms and eyes. Raven says she’d like to see some of the “softness and abundance” returned to the garden and believes this can be done without inconveniencing people or harming plants. While she praises the good work that's being done to maintain Sissinghurst, she adds that perhaps it's time to "soften and relax" a little.
She leaves readers with a call to examine how we can grow our own gardens and make them enchanting and magical—yet keep them tended and structured enough to avoid letting them “tip over into chaos.”
There’s much to love in this book. Read it for the history of a renowned garden, for the insights into the gardener who cared for it and for ideas and inspiration to bring to your own patch of earth.