By Peg Keenleyside
Some 30 odd years ago I visited a garden in England called Sissinghurst Castle Garden which had been bought in the 1930s by the then famous writer and socially risqué,Vita Sackville-West. The garden was built among the ruins of a centuries-old red brick manor house, laid out in a series of interconnected ‘rooms’ that revealed intimate visual and scented pleasures as you walked between them.
It was an experience that inspired me, as great art will, informing much of what I was then just learning about gardening. So it was with some nostalgia and a good deal of anticipation that I returned to Sissinghurst last month to re-visit the lessons left to us by Sackville-West.
Vita was part of a modernist movement in the 1930s that was pushing back against conventional notions of how to plant a garden. That convention relied much on lots of bright colored summer annuals raised in ‘hothouses,’ planted out in late spring, often around island beds of individual roses.
At Sissinghurst, Vita began using perennial plants as the mainstays of her garden rooms. What she advocated was the idea of planting perennials in masses – in a minimum of threes – so that over the years as the plants mature, you get a spectacular visual effect. That effect can be because of the repetition of leaf shapes, height, or, famously at Sissinghurst, in the use of the same color range for every plant chosen for a garden room.
The most talked-about room in Sackville-West’s garden has been her ‘White Room’ in the courtyard outside the house she slept in. Here she planted peonies, climbing roses, irises, hydrangeas, clematis, all with white or white hued flowers that would glow under moonlight. The companion perennial plantings, artemisia, sea holly, astilbe and others all share foliage color in grey-green shades; the perfect foil for big, white blooms.
Visiting the garden again 30 years later I was surprised to see that Vita’s ‘White Garden’ has devolved into a cottage garden-style room. Gone was the huge white-flowering clematis Montana covering an old red brick wall. Instead, the beds were dominated by self-seeding perennials. In the extreme heat that England is experiencing this summer, the white roses were all peaked and blowsy and looking for a good pruning.
My regret at the loss of this most quintessential gardener’s vision of my earlier visit was tempered by the knowledge that big, artfully tended gardens are enormously expensive to maintain. The new art of gardening has incorporated low maintenance methods (like self-seeding plants) because very few of us can afford garden help any longer. Even though it’s visited by some 200,000 people a year, Sissinghurst employs just three full time gardeners.
And I remind myself that one of the exciting aspects of working with living materials is that a garden is always evolving. Working with that reality of life, building on from what was, adapting your initial vision, is, in part, the very central pleasure of gardening.
One of my other takeaways from my young gardener’s visit to this garden was Vita’s ability to create intimate visual vignettes within a larger room; often using recycled materials. At the end of a long vista a statue is flanked by two humble clay pots. An old, stone, animal watering trough is planted with a cascade of small flowering perennials. This kind of easy, ‘visual moment’ garden creativity is a huge trend in contemporary gardens. And fortunately, you don’t need a 500-year-old stone trough to pull it off.
I’ve done some garden designing over the years since last seeing Sissinghurst and it was brought home to me again on this visit that making pathways and creating ‘walls’ as a backdrop for your garden are the things you need to incorporate to, as it were, frame your design.
There are many ways to do make a path, and I think one the best and most inexpensive ways to create a pathway is by using a wood strip or plastic edging material and crushed gravel.
Where they are not ancient weathered red brick, garden walls at Sissinghurst are primarily made using evergreen hedges and boxwood. Creating a living hedge frame or backdrop takes a bit more thought and cash outlay for the average property than just has a couple of trees and a stretch of lawn to its name, but there are creative ways to construct them. Fence posts with lattice between them, with climbing plants grown up the lattice is one method I’ve employed.
After many years of contributing to this column, I’ve decided to take a break from writing about gardening. It’s been a wonderful thing to have the space to write about a passion and a calling that has been the center of my life for many, many years, but I feel the need to explore some other aspects of my creative life that I set aside when I came to garden in Point Roberts some 20 years ago.
I wish you every pleasure the garden can bring you and, as Vita once famously said, “The more one gardens, the more one learns; and the more one learns, the more one realizes how little one knows.”