Sissinghurst Castle Garden – after lockdown
Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent was created by Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicholson, from the 1930s until Vita’s death in 1962. Its care passed to the National Trust in 1967, since when it has become one of the UK’s most famous and well-visited gardens and had a huge influence in the gardening world.
I have been a frequent visitor over many years, always enjoying my time there and gaining great inspiration from the treasure trove of wonderful plants.
But what happened to gardens like Sissinghurst during lockdown?
The plants must have carried on growing but with no one there to trim, cut back and plant out, what would it look like after a long, hot summer? I went to find out
It was good to see Sissinghurst again
This was my first trip of any distance since lockdown so I was looking forward to it but with mixed feelings. I must admit it was a bit of a shock to see how different it looked from previous years until I remembered how sudden and complete lockdown had been. All the gardeners must have been furloughed and very little work done for months so it wasn’t really surprising. Unlike our own gardens, which have been tended like never before, Sissinghurst, and many gardens like it, must have been deserted. I expect the gardeners are working hard to catch up but I imagine it’s very difficult in such a labour intensive garden. And the weather here hasn’t been kind, with the driest summer in many years.
Even so, ever optimistic, I really enjoyed the plants I did find and it was refreshing to be in a garden other than my own.
The Rose Garden
As you can see the Rose Garden looked a little unkempt. Was this due to the lack of time, the hot weather or the changes that are planned for the garden? I have read that these changes will recapture the essence of the garden as it was during Vita and Harold’s time with less rigour and constraint on the planting.
Trained plants will be allowed more freedom and others given space to grow into looser shapes. New planting is planned and an opening up of the garden to the surrounding countryside. Already, trees planted in the Rose Garden have changed the atmosphere, but how this alters the garden and our enjoyment of it, only time will tell.
But I was on a different mission – to find some plants!
Salix alba var. sericea, left to its own devices, will grow into a 12metre-high tree but at Sissinghurst it is coppiced and grows into a beautiful shrub to about two to three metres. Spindle is a native plant seen here in the cultivar Euonymus europaeus ‘Red Cascade’. The fruits are fascinating but hadn’t yet opened to reveal the orange seeds. Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Andenken an Alma Pötschke’ is a stunning plant with an unpronounceable, but memorable, name. I understand from the also memorable description on the Dorset Perennials website that ‘andenken an’ means ‘in memory of’ and the lady remembered is the mother of the owner of a nursery near Stuttgart. Tulbaghia was new to me. I think I’ve probably seen it before but it hadn’t really registered. On this occasion it did. It was so fresh and delicate set against the strong autumn colours and the dead and dying foliage. I found a wonderful source of information from the National Collection holder, which is certainly worth looking into.
The South Cottage Garden
It wasn’t as bursting with plants in every shade of red and yellow as previously but I did find some colour. Rudbeckias can always be relied on and this one was at its peak of perfection. And zinnias seem to be making a comeback.
The Nuttery is a quiet shady place in the summer and at the very end I found some beautiful blue flowers of Gentiana asclepiadea under another spindle with glorious red autumn colour.
The Orchard’s wide open space encourages you to wander among the fruit trees and, perhaps, to sit a while. Here some amazing crab apples looked good enough to eat and colchicums in several varieties had opened in the sun.
The White Garden
This has always been a favourite part of the garden both for its enclosed, private character and the enormous number and quality of plants grown there.
Having a less hectic life with more time during lockdown gave me the opportunity to look more closely at my plants and see things I had never noticed before. It was quite incredible how much I learned.
Similarly here, with fewer plants in full bloom to draw the attention, I noticed other things such as the moon-shaped seedpods of honesty, Lunaria annua, the froth of seeds on rosebay willowherb, Chamaenerion angustifolium ‘Album’, (No, I’d no idea they’d changed it either!) and the beautiful seeds floating from a downturned artichoke seedhead.
I saved this until last. I have read a lot about the redeveloped Delos, designed by Dan Pearson, but was looking forward to seeing it for myself. It replaces a woodland garden and was planned to be a realization of what Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson wanted in that space – a garden that would remind them of a Greek hillside in spring.
As with all change in famous locations, it is controversial, but I thought it was an excellent interpretation of a Mediterranean landscape. The new stone is very bright and somewhat overwhelming but that will soon mellow and the plants will mature and soften the edges. Perhaps that will overcome the criticism that it doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the garden.
On reflection I do rather like it and the planting certainly appeals to me. I loved the old garden – it had huge magnolias, ferns and woodland plants and was a picture in the spring with a carpet of Anemone apennina flowering under hazel trees. I wonder if they’ve left some of them to push their way up through the stone!
Here are some links to some more interesting information about the garden.
The National Trust
Recreating Delos at Sissinghurst
Dan Pearson Studio
Delos at Sissinghurst
The Merlin Trust
Look for 2016 Report by Joshua Sparkes and Bridget Wheeler
Sissinghurst Castle Garden – life after lockdown
What does the future hold for gardens like Sissinghust? At the moment we really don’t know but it’s very easy to imagine the worse whilst hoping for better times. I guess the garden will close soon for the winter and decisions will have be made. But one thing is certain, come the spring, plants will burst through and grow and, maybe, inspire us to have faith in the future.
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