How fortunate that my first visit to Sissinghurst this year should coincide with the warmest day of the spring so far. As the car bowled through the Weald of Kent the roads were fringed with sulphur-yellow catkins and golden daffodils, sparking beneath a clear blue sky. The greys and browns of winter had started to diffuse, obscured here and there by fleeting blizzards of blackthorn and cool showers of willow. It was an uplifting drive that gave me the opportunity to get back in tune with the countryside after a week in the city. It also served as a reminder of how lovely the Garden of England is, especially in spring.
This Saturday the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle reopened to the public after their winter rest. In ‘Gardeners’ Cuttings’, a monthly information sheet printed for the benefit of visitors, Gardener Peter Fifield described the excitement and anxiety experienced by the Sissinghurst team as the garden is woken from its sleep. A new philosophy is guiding the development of Sissinghurst, a move to gently restore the romantic ebullience that Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson once cherished in their famous garden.
Over the years Sissinghurst has bowed to the demands of an increasing number of visitors, each expecting to witness perfection at every glance. The result has been an understandable deviation from some of the methods and planting schemes that might originally have been employed when Sissinghurst was a private garden. Vita and Harold accepted that each area of the garden would have its ‘moment’, before quietly fading into the background again. Now gardens, just like humans, are expected to be ‘always on’. A management regime designed to please those making a pilgrimage to Sissinghurst from March to October is being loosened, just a little, to allow some of the garden’s natural exuberance to shine through. I can’t wait to experience the result.
Vita and Harold embraced and celebrated Sissinghurst’s bucolic setting, blending their garden seamlessly into the enveloping Wealden landscape. Immediately in front of the house, much of the grass has been sprayed off in order to create the kind of pictorial meadows that the Bakers, who built the castle, might have enjoyed in the 16th Century. Plantings of Malus ‘Dartmouth’ and Malus floribunda have been made, and the lawns in the front courtyard have been reseeded with a wildflower mix including primroses, self heal and daisies.
Much work has also been done in the orchard, where sycthing is once again practiced as a means of encouraging biodiversity. Paths are mown here at the beginning of the season, after which the rest of the sward is allowed to grow, before being scythed off in the summer. Here and in the Nuttery, pools and lakes of lilac Crocus tommasinianus have been allowed to form, as if they were drops of water rising from the sodden ground.
Once inside the garden, standards are typically high. Even this early in spring there is plenty to see. Vita liked to observe flowers up close, planting her most delicate bulbs and flowers in stone troughs raised on bricks against the house. Narcissus ‘Spoirot’ was in its prime near the door into Vita’s library, which continues to inspire my own efforts to create an atmospheric room filled with books. (N. ‘Spoirot’ is a hybrid between Narcissus bulbocodium subsp. bulbocodium var. conspicuus and N. cantabricus subsp. cantabricus var. foliosus raised at the Glenbrook Bulb Farm in Tasmania by Rod Barwick. ‘Spoirot’ is one of his Little Detective Series named after Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot.)
At my feet were beauties such as Iris unguicularis ‘Walter Butt’ and Primula ‘Cowichan Amethyst Group’, displaying flowers in that extraordinary shade of purple-shot-royal-blue and magenta that only primulas can produce.
Another trough was filled with a cool combination of Euphorbia myrsinites and Pushkinia scilloides var. libatonica, a pairing I’d very much like to replicate at home. The pushkinia grows well for me in our heavy London soil, but I doubt the euphorbia would enjoy the same conditions.
Whilst the stems were bare of flowers, I was reminded by a label that I must plant Rosa ‘Mermaid’ on the wall of our new house. It’s a rose that I’ve admired on every visit to Sissinghurst since I was a student. I’m excited that I might finally have a place for it; somewhere where I can enjoy those deliciously louch flowers that so remind me of a lady’s floppy sun hat.
I am terrified of heights, an affliction mercilessly exploited by Him Indoors. This means I rarely put myself in positions where I have to climb a tower, walk over a bridge or go near a cliff edge. Spurred on by an unusual bout of confidence and the absence of Him Indoors goading me, I plucked up the courage to climb the worn oak stairs of the tower and get a little bit closer to heaven. I’m so glad I found the courage. Gazing nervously over the parapet, out across the Cottage and Rose Gardens, one can really appreciate the structure that makes this garden so exceptional. The plants may be allowed to relax a little this summer, but at this moment the yew is so sharply clipped that it might be mistaken for a wall rather than a hedge.
Looking in the other direction I cast an eye over the range of farm buildings that support the estate and beyond to the vegetable garden. Although the oasts and barns have mostly been adapted to modern use, they are still working buildings, providing visitors with sustenance and shopping opportunities. Nowhere else in the world but Kent would this view be so commonplace …. and isn’t it wonderful?
Taking a break to soak up the spring sunshine and replenish my vitamin D, I made this short recording of the birdsong that provided the backing track to my day out. The Sissinghurst estate is managed with nature conservation in mind, and the result can be heard as well as seen.
Naturally, the Lime Walk and Nuttery are the big attractions at Sissinghurst in spring. Neither disappointed. The Nuttery was flooded with tiny Crocus tommasinianus, with evidence of a sea of anemones ready to innundate the space left behind once the crocuses had faded. With only a handful of narcissi in flower, it was the limes in the Lime Walk that stole the show, their bright red fingers extending from gnarled fists towards the blue sky. The lime responsible for this colourful growth is Tilia platyphyllos ‘Rubra’.
As you have doubtless established by now, I was rather enjoying my visit, the sunshine and the freedom of being on my own to linger as long as I liked. I could wax lyrical for several paragraphs more, but I won’t. Instead, I will let the next few pictures do the talking. Please enjoy them. TFG.
Categories: Bulbs, Container gardening, Flowers, Foliage, Garden Design, Kentish Gardens, Large Gardens, Other People's Gardens, Photography, Plants
25 comments On "Spring Comes to Sissinghurst"
Thanks for sharing your visit to Sissinghurst , inspirational phots and dialogue.
Being a professional gardener in Scotland I do not get the opportunity to visit many wonderful gardens and shows further south by following your blog I feel I am not missing out. Where are we going next?
Hmmm, that’s a good question. I haven’t planned my next trip yet. I will be going to Cornwall soon, so there will be some gardens visited there for sure. So pleased you enjoyed my account of Sissinghurst.
I love Sissinghurst but have never seen it in early spring. Lovely to see the backbone of the garden. Your mystery plant is Acropolis carniolica ( I think). I devour your blog with great pleasure. x
Thanks Kay. Appreciate your help in identifying my mystery plant, and your diligence in getting to the end of my post. You are right, it’s Scopolia carniolica var. brevifolia. Acropolis carniolica sounds pretty plausible too though 😉
Scopolia carniolica! Predictive text!!!
Just delightful. thanks Dan for your photos and thoughts on your visit to his fab garden in springtime. Keep up you great blog.
Fabulous post Dan. I am glad you were very brave and climbed the tower. The panoramic photos are wonderful. Have such fond memories of my visit to sissinghurst. The lush lawns, stone troughs, the lime walk, and so many inspirational plantings, just a few of the highlights. Thx so much for all the time and effort you put into this blog, I love it! H
My pleasure Helen. I took several lawn photographs especially for you! I will email them when I get a spare moment.
Your lovely post brought back happy memories of my long dreamed of visit to Sissinghurst in late May 2015. Such a wonderful garden. Like you, my husband is terrified of heights so I had to make the climb to the top of the tower myself but it was oh, so worth it, not only to get a birds eye view of the garden, but the magnificent landscape beyond. Loved the birdsong and the added chorus of the two legged “birds” was an amusing touch. I totally agree with you that good structure = a great garden.
I did enjoy all the photos, thank you for sharing them. I have been to Sissinghurst in June and September, and it is lovely to see how it looks at this time of year. The view from the top of the tower is always my first look at the garden, it is worth the climb. Caerhayes is my next visit in Cornwall, hopefully. It is reputed to be lovely at this time of year.
Oh it is! One of my favourites. Take sturdy boots though, as it isn’t manicured and can be quite damp and hilly. If you catch the magnolias at the right time they are spectacular. I have only seen them grow like they do at Caerhays in Nepal and Bhutan, which is a bit too far to go every spring ;-). Make sure you leave time to have tea in the old laundry. Enjoy.
Ah to visit Sissinghurst…dream on Peter…but one day perhaps…till then I have your wonderful post Dan
Glad it transported you Peter, at least part of the way! Have a lovely weekend.
Thanks Dan for your report from Sissinghurst and your beautiful spring photos. It’s a balm for my eyes 🙂 Love the crocus tommasinianus and narcissus ‘Spoirot’ . I have to look for their bulbs. Maybe if I am lucky i will be able to plant them in my garden in autumn. Have a nice weekend.
Crocus tommasinianus is a good spreader – it seeds itself everywhere if allowed to. I’d never seen Narcissus ‘Spoirot’ before. I think it needs to be elevated to be appreciated properly as the flowers are only held 3-4″ above ground. Have a lovely weekend too.
Beautiful photos, especially the aerial shots 🙂 Thank you for sharing your visit and reminding me to hot-foot it over there as soon as I can!
Not quite so far for you as for me. A nice Mother’s Day outing perhaps? I am sure you deserve a treat 🙂
Excellent suggestion 🙂
I’ve just noticed The National Trust are advertising for a gardener at Sissinghurst Dan. There’s an opportunity for some lucky person. Applications are open until 23rd March – what a shame its only for internal applicants. What a joy that would be and worth moving to Kent for!
A joy, yes, but looking at the advert has reminded me what gardeners are paid! Criminal really.
Absolutely! My thoughts exactly. As much as we love our gardens, it doesn’t pay the bills. Even a head gardeners role is only £25k – I’d say that’s a pretty poor return on the years of experience and skills required to get to the level of head gardener. Under valued in terms of pay that’s for sure. Hardly surprising its so difficult to recruit and bring trainees up through the ranks. The things we do for the love of plants eh!
Lovely post. And your pictures and video were a breath of fresh air especially since I’m still looking at a grey winter landscape here at home in the US. I visited Sissinghurst in 2011 at about the same time of year as your visit, and your photos take me right back. The nuttery and lime walk were as good as it gets. What a treasure Sissinghurst is, and how lucky England is to have them. One comment after seeing your comments and picture on the use of Euphorbia myrsinites. I have found it to be a wonderful companion to Veronica peduncularis ‘Georgia Blue’ blooming at the same time in my part of the world and looking great together.
That sounds like a lovely combination Dean; the light, frothy Veronica and the sprawling architectural Euphorbia. I can see it in my mind’s eye. I hope spring arrives in your part of the world soon. I am already watering as it’s been so dry. Roll on April showers!!