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The English Gardener: His and Hers, Harold and Vita

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The English Gardener: His and Hers, Harold and Vita

May 6, 2013

He does the hedges; she does the flowers. He might do the vegetables and she might mow the lawn, but only if there is no other option. What is it about gardening that brings out gender stereotypes?

On the surface, this seems to affect even the least conventional of partnerships: the garden made by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson at Sissinghurst is a portrait of a marriage, a very happy and not very normal one.

Photographs by Kendra Wilson.

Above: It is generally agreed that Vita Sackville-West was responsible for the romantic and–dare I say–feminine planting in the garden while Harold sketched it all out with a ruler.

Above: And yet the very formal Lime Walk, an avenue of pleached limes created by Harold, is one of the prettiest parts of the garden in spring. With its colorful bulb planting between uneven slabs, it is frolicsome, in the way that the unforgiving Yew Walk is not. Harold described it as his “life’s work.”

Above: Vita wore the trousers in this marriage. Having bought the property, Vita hoisted the Sackville flag and vetoed Harold’s ideas when they didn’t chime with hers. According to Sarah Raven, who is married to their grandson Adam Nicolson, Harold was almost like a paying guest, “though a very welcome one.” Shown here: the statue of the Little Virgin in the White Garden. 

Above: Harold built the backbone of the garden. He created vistas and divisions and formality through his geometric layout. As outdoor architect, Nicholson designed new rooms from living walls of box and yew, added to the occasional remains of Elizabethan brick. He made sense of the layout of the ruined castle.

And yet with all its sharp lines, the final effect at Sissinghurst is not formal. “The lack of grandeur is more down to Vita than Harold,” says Sarah Raven. “Vita wanted simplicity, crumble, patina.”

Above: Vita brought romanticism to the garden. She loved old-fashioned roses, “tussie mussies” (posies), and “wildlings” (wildflowers), and would put out stakes where flowers had self-seeded so that they would not be weeded out by the gardeners. “She liked little trees. He thought they’d spoil the lines,” says Sarah Raven. The little trees stayed.

Above: In the end, normal ideas of “His and Hers” are a red herring in this garden, as in the marriage of Harold and Vita. Sissinghurst works because it was born out of agreement and a profound attachment. They shared the same aesthetic. “They both wanted a rough authenticity,” says Raven. “It was important to be bohemian.” As such, they were unimpressed with the 1930s and were happy to dive into a sense of the past at their castle in Kent.

Above: Some of Harold’s lines are a bit off-center; the Yew Walk refuses to grow properly. “It’s not Versailles,” says Sarah Raven. Sissinghurst was created by a man and a woman who loved gardening.

Want to see more of Sissinghurst? The last time Kendra visited, she toured Vita’s Sunset Garden.

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