I have something of an obsession with Sissinghurst. I think a little piece of me was left behind when I first visited; a piece of it coming with me forever more.
And perhaps I’m not alone: the irreverent garden commentator, Tim Richardson, described it as ‘arguably the world’s leading garden’. And having studied the garden in some detail for my Master of Horticulture, including the wonderful opportunity to interview Troy Scott Smith, its Head Gardener, I find the more I immerse myself, the more my fondness grows.
I first visited Sissinghurst in 2014, noting the magic of its buildings, structure and sense of place. But in 2016, it seems the magic of Troy Scott Smith has improved it even further.
Two years ago, Troy told me of his intent to evolve the garden to evoke more of a sense of its 1950s atmosphere, at the peak of Vita Sackville-West’s time. He wanted it to be intimate, romantic and immersive, not processed or overly manicured.
His aim was to make the garden feel as if it was alive and breathing. And that is exactly what he has achieved. It’s with your heart and your head that you enjoy this garden, much more so than with your eyes.
Troy is all about atmosphere and he fully engages with the minuscule details that affect the way a garden feels. The changes are very subtle – on the surface it’s just the same – but it’s these details, almost imperceptible, that alter the garden’s feel.
I marvelled, yet again, at Sissinghurst’s buildings, structure and sense of place, but this time I had a little more capacity to examine the garden on another level or two.
I looked more closely at the planting styles and combinations; the simplicity of colour themes and the balance of abundance without busyness.
But I think more than anything, the recent evolution lies in the skill of the maintenance of this garden. Everything feels soft, natural and at ease. Yet nothing feels messy, neglected or unloved.
Troy and his team seem to manage to intervene at just the perfect moment. Late enough to allow plants to develop a life of their own, free of a sense of restraint or constriction; but before the moment of abandonment sets in.
The borders feel full to overflowing, resting on the stone pathways and climbing away along the walls. But behind this sense of natural growth, precision planting has taken place, demonstrating an immense horticultural knowledge of each and every plant’s form and growth pattern; each path having just the right clearance for the garden to feel intimate, but not out of control.
There’s a range of styles across the garden, from areas in the car park and outer paddocks designed as beautifully-curated wilderness, to the more formal areas closer to the house, with intense colour and clipped topiary. But there is somehow a relaxed feel to it all: this doesn’t feel intensely gardened, but rather happily guided along its own, natural inclinations.
And so it may come as no surprise to hear that Dan Pearson has been an Honorary Garden Advisor at Sissinghurst over the past two years. The essence of this relaxed, romantic version of Sissinghurst so reminiscent of his wonderful Chatsworth House evocation at Chelsea last year.
Yet it takes more than an occasional consultant’s visit to give a garden its atmosphere and it’s clear that whilst I’m sure Dan Pearson provides invaluable advice, on this one occasion, I think it’s Troy Scott Smith that is the star of the show. The two of them together, possibly the most powerful combination of designer and Head Gardener the world could see.
It’s hugely exciting to see a move away from a vanilla National Trust garden formula: for this such special place to be allowed to regain its sense of individualism and history. It’s certainly not a museum, but to keep the essence of a place, whilst evolving with the times, is surely the best outcome for any heritage garden. Not fixed in the past, but providing more than a nod to it. Creating an experience that is true to its original conception.
The emotions a garden can evoke are really quite incredible. I’m already looking forward to reuniting my full set of pieces back together again, on my next trip to Sissinghurst.