From the archive: Vita Sackville-West on her garden at Sissinghurst (1950)

On our weekly delve into the archive, we revisit a 1950 feature in which Vita Sackville-West writes about the creation of her garden at Sissinghurst, which she made from scratch together with her husband Harold Nicolson.
Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville West at Sissinghurst in 1960Getty Images

The thing to remember about this garden is that twenty years ago, in 1930, there was no garden. The place had been in the market for three years since the death of the last farmer-owner; the buildings were occupied by farm­ labourers; and the slum-like effect, produced by both man and Nature, was squalid to a degree. There was nothing but a dreadful mess of old chicken­ houses and wire chicken runs; broken­-down spile fences; rubbish dumps where cottagers had piled their tins, their bottles, their rusty ironmongery and their broken crockery for perhaps half a century; old cabbage stalks; and a tangle of weeds everywhere. Brambles grew in wild profusion; bindweed wreathed its way into every support; ground-elder made a green carpet; docks and nettles flourished; couch­ grass sprouted; half the fruit trees in the orchard were dead; the ones that remained alive were growing in the coarsest grass; the moat was silted up and so invaded by reeds and bulrushes that the water was almost invisible; paths there were none, save of trodden mud. It had its charII,1. It was the Sleeping Beauty's castle with a ven­geance, if you liked to see it with a romantic eye; but if you also looked at it with a realistic eye you saw that Nature run wild was not quite so romantic as you thought, and entailed a great deal of laborious tidying up.

The White Garden at SissinghurstGetty

It took three years to clear away the rubbish, three solid years, employing only an old man and his son who also had other jobs to do. Neither of them was a gardener; they were just casual labour. It was not until 1933 that any serious planting could be undertaken, but this was perhaps as well, because during those three impatient years we had time to become familiar with the "feel" of the place-a very important advantage which the professional gar­den-designer, abrupt1y called in, is seldom able to enjoy. A hundred times we changed our minds, but as we changed them only on paper no harm was done and no expense incurred. Of course, we longed to start planting the hedges which were to be the skeleton of the garden, its bones, its anatomy, but had we been able to do so in those early days I am sure we should have planted them in the wrong place. Even as it was, we made some mistakes: the yew walk is too narrow, and I stuck a Paulownia imperialis into the middle of a future flower-bed, where it is becom­ing only too-imperial, and is now rapidly attaining the dimensions of a forest tree. I have not the heart to cut it down, although I know I ought to.

The formal gardens in 1930De Agostini via Getty Images

It was not an easy garden to design. We had so very little to go on. There were no existent hedges, except rub­bishy ones which just demanded to be grubbed out, and no old trees, such as a cedar, or a mulberry, which one might reasonably have expected to find on so ancient a site, and which would have provided a starting point here and there. It is true that we had some guiding lines in the old walls of pink Tudor brick, and God forbid that I should be so un­grateful to those, for they are in many ways the making of the garden, but after the charming haphazard fashion of Tudor builders, who presumably had no professional architect to draw plans for them, none of the lines seemed to be at right angles to one another, but shot off most inconveniently in odd direc­tions. It looked all right from ground­ level, but once you had climbed the tower and looked down upon the whole layout as though you were seeing it from an aeroplane, you discovered that everything was at sixes and sevens. The tower wasn't opposite the main en­trance; and the courtyard wasn't rect­angular, as you thought, but coffin­-shaped; the moat wall ran away at an oblique angle from everything else; the moat followed an even more inexplic­able angle. It required great ingenuity to overcome those problems, but for­tunately Harold Nicolson (who might ell have made his career as an archi­tect or a garden-designer instead of a diplomatist, a politician, or an author) possessed enough ingenuity, and also enough large paper sheets ruled into squares, to grapple with the difficulties.

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The result, I think, is entirely suc­cessful. He has contrived in the most ingenious way, as you may appreciate from the accompanying photographs, to produce a design which combines formality with informality. He has managed to get long vistas over and over again, in a relatively small space. This makes the garden look far larger than in fact it is.

I had the smaller part. Harold Nicolson did the designing, and I did the planting. We made a good com­bination in this way: I could not possibly have drawn out the architec­tural lines of the garden, and he couldn't possibly have planted it up, because he doesn't know quite as much about plants as I do. This is not saying much, for I know very little, but he knows even less. But he does know how to draw the axis between one view point and another, and that is some­thing I could never have accomplished. To sum up, I think I have-succeeded in making the garden pretty with my flowers, but the real credit is due to him, who drew its lines so well and so firmly that it can still be regarded with pleasure even in the winter months when all my flowers have vanished away and the skeleton is revealed.

Sissinghurst in 1942Shutterstock

Having paid this tribute to Harold Nicolson, I must go back to some details about the making of this garden and what we grow in it. We found it, as I have said, in a dread­ful mess. The only thing we found of any interest was an old Gallica rose, then unknown to cultivation, which is now listed as Gallica var. Sissinghurst Castle at 10s. a plant by Messrs. Hilling of Chobham, to whom I gave some runners. Miss Nancy Lindsay, who is an expert on such matters, says that my old rose is Gallica Tour des Maures, a great rarity... that is as may be. I don't know whether this shrubby, woody old rose I found ramping here is of any interest at all. I know only that it is fun and interesting to find anything growing on any old site, be­cause you never know what it may tum out to be. This is the way in which many old plants are forgotten and then re-discovered, whether it is an old rose, an old primrose, an old double wall­flower or sweet william, or what.

Apart from that, there was nothing, unless you count an old quince tree which certainly is a lovely sight in the spring, with its fiat, pinkish-white blossoms and its heavy golden fruit in autumn; in the intervening months it now has a clematis scrambling all over it, clothing it in purple.

The most urgent thing to do was to plant hedges. We were extravagant over this, and planted yew, and have never regretted it. Everybody told us it took at least a century to make a good yew hedge, but the photographs will, I think, disprove this: the hedge is now only seventeen years old, a mere adoles­cent, and, at the end where the ground slopes and it has been allowed to grow up in order to maintain the top-level, it is 16 feet high. This should he hearten­ing to those who hesitate to plant yew. We did nothing particular to encourage it; we did not souse it with bullock's blood or anything like that; but we did put in very young plants, what the nurserymen call I½ feet to 2 feet, which look more like the heads of a birch­broom dotted along a line than like anything which promises to become a solid hedge. We did this partly from motives of economy but also because I am a firm believer in young plants that have not had time to get settled in their ways. The percentage of loss is far smaller, in fact I don't believe we lost a single one; and when they do "get away," in the gardener's phrase, they go ahead without check and far more vigorously. But it does demand a lot of patience, and for years our garden looked like a nursery garden with rows and rows of little Christmas-trees for sale. One has one's rewards.

Similarly, we planted some acacias. They looked like walking-sticks stuck into the ground. I paid about 2d. each for them, from a nursery in France, and truly they were not more than twelve inches high. Twelve naked little inches of a miniature walking-stick. Today they are large and graceful trees, twenty to thirty feet high, at a modest estimate, drooping their sweet-scented tassels of flower in June. A good twopennyworth.

Sissinghurst in 1942Shutterstock

The only exception was the four big yews in the courtyard. Here we did take a risk. We found them in a nurseryman's garden, to which they had just been transplanted from Penshurst churchyard. The parishioners of Penshurst appar­ently thought them too gloomy and threw them out. They were old trees, but they were just what the courtyard at Sissinghurst demanded and we chanced it. We were justi­fied: they all survived, and they now look as though they had been there for ever. We did take some trouble over these; we sank drain­age-pipes down to their roots, and poured bullock's blood into them. I used to absent myself while this unpleasant operation was taking place; but I now feel that the five pounds the four trees had cost me was well expended.

In that same nurseryman's garden I found an old rose growing against the office wall. It was a very deep red, fading to purple, and with the strongest rose scent that ever a rose had. They were rather contemp­tuous of it; didn't even know its name; hadn't even bothered to propagate it. They said I could have the old plant if I liked to risk moving it. I risked it; it bore the move, and has turned out to be Souvenir du Docteur Jamain, a climbing hybrid perpetual almost lost to cultivation. It strikes easily from cuttings, and now has a lot of children, both in my own garden and Messrs. Hilling's-at a price.

All this was great fun, but we had to get on with the hedges. We planted hornbeam where we couldn't afford yew; and we also planted an avenue of young limes in a rough place and left them to look after themselves. The result of this can be seen in the photograph showing the pleached walk with a statue looking down it. It is now the spring garden. Primroses and olyanthus in a carpet of colour grow beneath bushes of golden Forsythia, with many bulbs of narcissus, scilla, grape hyacinth and the like. It is prolonged and finished off by a huge expanse of coloured primrose and polyanthus growing beneath old nut trees of Kentish cob and filberts. At the end of all this is the herb garden, which always seems to allure visitors, no doubt because it is a secret, senti­mental little place. "Old world charm" is the phrase I always expect to hear; and nine times out of ten I get it. But, less romantic­ally, the herb garden does supply very useful things to the kitchen.

How shall I sum up this garden, that has been made in so short a time, and yet looks so matured that it might have been here for as long ago as the old Tudor house round which it has been made? This may sound sentimental, but it is very true. One needs years of patience to make a garden; one needs deeply to love it, in order to endure that patience. One needs optimism and foresight. One has to wait. One has to work hard oneself, sometimes, as I had to work hard, manually, during the war years, cutting all those hedges with shears in my spare time. I hated those hedges, when I looked at my blistered hands; but at the same time I still felt that it had been worth while planting them. They were the whole pattern and design and anatomy of the garden; and, as. such, were worth any trouble I was willing to take.

The rest of the garden just went wild during the war years. We had begun to get it tidy, and then it reverted to the wildness in which we had found it in 1930. We could not cope with it at all. Now it is better. We have spent the five years since the war ended in eradi­cating the weeds and getting things back into some sort of order. It was like starting at scratch again, and I must record my gratitude to my admirable gardener, John Vass, who returned to us after an adven­turous career in the R.A.F., and whose keenness, intelligence, energy and devotion have gone far towards making the garden what it is.