Sissinghurst gardens is given the kiss of life

Tommy Garnett, our finest garden writer, describes the redemption of Sissinghurst

I thought in my pride, as the Psalmist might have said, ‘Yet another’. I was about to use it to light the fire. But it would have been discourteous not to read it first, and now I have kept it.
A visitor had sent an article from the Canadian City and Country Home about Sissinghurst, one of the best-known gardens in the world.
The White Garden, the tower, the yew rondel – they were all there; and good photographers can flatter gardens as court painters can flatter their patrons. There is almost a production line of sows’ ears to silk purses. Not that flattery is necessary at Sissinghurst.
It was the article itself (by Sandra Martin), which caught me. The author drew a telling parallel between the pattern of the garden and the pattern of its creators’ married life. Harold Nicolson was the strategist, Vita Sackville-West the tactician. He provided the framework within which Vita could indulge her passionate planting.
So it was with their marriage, which lasted nearly 50 years. It provided the framework within which individuality could find room to move. Never mind that not everyone would approve of the results. Sissinghurst was the third garden the Nicolsons had made. The first had been in Constantinople; the second near Sevenoaks. What was common to all three was that they were ‘dilapidated and overgrown when the Nicolsons took them on, but that was part of their appeal; the Nicolsons loved to create beauty out of chaos’.
Of Sissinghurst itself, Vita wrote: ‘It was Sleeping Beauty’s Castle; but a castle running away into sordidness and squalor; a garden crying out for rescue. It was easy to foresee, even then, what a struggle we should have
to redeem it’. In the eyes of her then 13-year-old son (who still lives there, though the garden belongs to the National Trust), ‘the place looked like a rubbish dump’; to his mother it was idyllic.
The Nicolsons bought Sissinghurst in 1930, though what
is perhaps its most famous section – the White Garden (pictured above) , the prototype for so many others – was not made until 15 years later.
Within two days of the purchase, Harold had drawn up a plan for the flat, asymmetrical site. The bones of that plan still exist, virtually unaltered, nearly 60 years later, though the plantings have been, to use Sandra Martin’s phrase ‘dynamic and fluid’.
More importantly, as she records, ‘It still seems to belong to someone; it has character and exuberance which transcend state ownership’. That is a tribute to the National Trust and the gardeners who they have appointed to care for it. ‘No garden has ever been successfully run by a committee,’ states one of the Trust’s four garden advisers in a recent book, which distils the wisdom of some of those gardeners.
I can think of several such Sleeping Beauties in Victoria awaiting a kiss of life. But in this bureaucratic age, before that kiss could be implanted upon one of them, her vital statistics would have to be compiled, her fingerprints taken and half-a-dozen committees would discuss whether she was worth reviving, or whether her existence should simply be recorded.
Take Ard Choille at Mt Macedon, for example, designed by Taylor and Sangster at the end of last century. The iron bones of its shadehouse provided the frontispiece for Peter Watts’ book Historic Gardens of Victoria and the end-papers of the catalogue of a landmark exhibition in 1980,
called Converting the Wilderness: The Art of Gardening in Colonial Australia. It lies outside the group of Macedon gardens classified by the National Trust, and has therefore received less publicity than those; but potentially, it is as fine as any of them.
Inside our houses, even those who in the past might have employed domestic servants, serve magnificent meals with the aid of modern technology and hard work.
But, though our climate is so much better than that of Kent for gardening, too few have carried the same lesson outside. Are there no Nicolsons in Victoria?

Letters from the country

Tommy Garnett (1915–2006) was a gardening legend, not by design, but rather verse.  The creator of The Garden of St Erth wrote regular articles ‘from the country’ to share his journey with all Australians.  In this series, we share some of the wonderful articles Tommy wrote for The Age and take you on a historical journey from one of our most-loved and respected writers.

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Andrew Laidlaw describes how the first Global Garden of Peace is taking shape in Gaza

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Ines Balint shares a special garden connection and love of food with her family in Serbia

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Three up and coming gardeners

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