ISSUE 48  |  California Dreaming

Required Reading: Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst

December 02, 2014 7:30 PM

BY Kendra Wilson

“What’s it like to live in one of the most famous gardens in the world, when you have your own strong views on gardening?” I once asked Sarah Raven as we stood by the entrance arch at Sissinghurst. Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst: The Creation of a Garden, credited to both Sackville-West and her granddaughter-in-law Raven, is one answer.

A fabulous read that analyzes the VSW style both outdoors and in, it supplements Vita’s text with Sarah’s own detailed approach to the key plants in the garden, written from a post-Vita perspective. So there is something for the plantaholic as well as the culturally nosy. 

Photography by Jonathan Buckley.

Above: The indomitable tower, which houses Vita’s writing room on the second floor.

Built as a viewing platform (for hunting mainly), the tower formed a small part of a large palace. It was perfected to the standards required for a visiting monarch (Elizabeth I did stay at Sissinghurst for a few days). There followed a long and sometimes dramatic descent into wrack and ruin. Fortunately, that was just what the romantic Vita Sackville-West was looking for.

Above: Mr. and Mrs. Nicolson in the Spring Garden. Sarah Raven and husband Adam Nicolson, both writers, moved into Sissinghurst to look after an ailing Nigel Nicolson (Adam’s father, Vita’s son). He was the author of the unputdownable memoir Portrait of a Marriage, a chronicle of the “unconventional” union of Sir Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West.

The Spring Garden, also known as the Lime Walk, was specifically Harold’s creation: he even had his own gardener for this high-maintenance area. It shows his trademark formality but also a love of flowers since, as Sarah Raven points out, it is one of the most intensely planted areas at Sissinghurst. Even though the Spring Garden has its own feel, the gardens were in general a collaborative effort.

Above: Sissinghurst was semi-derelict when the elder Nicolsons bought it in 1930. Having served as a prisoner-of-war camp in the Napoleonic wars before being gutted by fire, the former Tudor palace (which the French referred to as a castle) had more walls than actual buildings. Vita and Harold built more walls, to frame the space.

The walls were for covering. Vita loved abundance as much as she loved scent, so old-fashioned roses were a natural draw: “There is nothing scrimpy or stingy about them,” wrote Sackville-West. “They have a generosity which is as desirable in plants as in people.” Shown here are Rosa ‘Albertine’ and R. ‘Paul’s Lemon Pillar’.

Above: Another favorite climber, Actinidia kolomikta frames a doorway in a wall built in the ’30s. Vita loved the triple-colored leaves peculiar to Actinidias: “They are not often seen but they should be.” Note the shrubby overflow onto the York stone path beyond.

Above: For the center of the White Garden, Vita chose Rosa Mulliganii. As David Austin describes it: “This massive rambler is one of the biggest of all climbing roses in this country,” and it certainly dominates the space. Originally four were planted to cover the axes, but they were thinned out to just one. The rambling rose is supported on a framework designed by Vita’s son Nigel Nicolson; he came up with the structural shape with the aid of some paper clips on his desk.

Above: After adding yew walls to those of narrow Elizabethan brick, Vita’s gardening philosophy was: “cram, cram, cram.”

Sarah Raven’s book provides an insider’s view of Vita’s garden obsession. It is a surprisingly new angle as the book manages to avoid Vita’s chaotic private life, while remaining a personal portrait. This can be refreshing but if a fuller picture is required, read this in tandem with Portrait of a Marriage. As a postscript, look at Adam Nicolson‘s piece in the New York Times, describing how and why he and Sarah no longer live at Sissinghurst.

Above: Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst: The Creation of a Garden, by Sarah Raven. Published by Virago, £30. For US shoppers, a hardcover copy of Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst is $21.33 from Amazon.

More Sissinghurst? See: 

“¢ The English Gardener: His and Hers, Harold and Vita
“¢ Garden Visit: Vita’s Sunset Garden
“¢ Woodland Plants that Bloom in Dappled Light Under Trees