Revisiting Sissinghurst Castle Garden

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.

Wonderful colour combinations in the Cottage Garden

Wonderful colour combinations in the Cottage Garden at Sissinghurst

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.

Everything is so beautiful at Sissinghurst, from the matching, stained bricks to the paper labels on the plants

Everything is so beautiful at Sissinghurst, from the mismatching, stained bricks to the paper labels on the flower stems

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.

Troy has increased the number of rose cultivars by 40%, in line with historical records, with the wonderful Kent countryside in the background

Troy has increased the number of rose cultivars by 40%, in line with historical records: here with the wonderful Kent countryside as a backdrop

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.

Loosely pruned Buxus edges a planting of pink tones which bring out the beige tones in the brickwork; how fabulous that the bricks seem to work with every colour imaginable

Loosely pruned Buxus edges a planting of pink tones which bring out the beige of the brickwork

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.

The very famous White Garden demonstrating a fabulous mix of abundance and restraint

The very famous White Garden demonstrating a fabulous mix of abundance and restraint

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.

Old-fashioned plant species look quite the part against the backdrop of the listed building

Old-fashioned plant species look quite the part against the backdrop of the listed building

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.

The Cottage Garden picks out the warm shades of the brickwork, without becoming overpowering

The hot colours in the Cottage Garden do not overpower; they pick out the warm shades in the brickwork, which appear to work with every colour imaginable

I looked more closely at the planting styles and combinations; the simplicity of colour themes and the balance of abundance without busyness.

Shady loving plants part to reveal a sculpture in the dappled light of multi-stemmed trees

Shade-loving plants part to reveal a sculpture in the dappled light of multi-stemmed trees

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.

Valeriana officinalis and Trifolium pratense mix with grasses above the lake in a scene that looks entirely natural, yet is almost certainly precisely planned

Valeriana officinalis and Trifolium pratense mix with grasses above the lake in a scene that looks entirely natural, yet is almost certainly precisely planned

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.

Plants spill over the pathways to precisely the right degree: just as we plan but rarely achieve at home!

Plants spill over the pathways to precisely the right degree: just as we plan – but rarely achieve – at home!

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.

The orchard is evolving into a flower meadow with mown pathways allowing visitors to feel connected to nature

The orchard is evolving into a flower meadow with mown pathways allowing visitors to feel connected with nature

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.

Invisibly-staked sweet peas, of incredible health, sit in front of the house with a mix of self sown and planted wall climbers

Invisibly-staked sweet peas, of incredible health, sit in front of the house with a mix of self sown and planted wall climbers

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.

A wonderful mix of textures and tones, loosely controlled, create a very romantic effect

A wonderful mix of textures and tones, loosely controlled, create a very romantic effect

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.

These pink Lilium martagon create a calm pop of colour amongst a sea of green and white

These pink Lilium martagon create a calm pop of colour amongst a sea of green and white

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.

Primary colours jostle for space in the Cutting Garden at Sissinghurst. The black shed provides a powerful backdrop to these strong colours, demonstrating the thought put into even the back of house areas

Primary colours jostle for space in the Cutting Garden at Sissinghurst. The black shed provides a powerful backdrop to these strong colours, demonstrating the thought put in, even back-of-house

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.

Even the evidence of deadheading is pure, aesthetic delight!

Even the evidence of deadheading is pure, aesthetic delight!

21 thoughts on “Revisiting Sissinghurst Castle Garden

  1. Deirdre says:

    Thank you for a wonderful blog. I have always been obsessed with and haunted by this garden. Reading all of Vita’s writings about gardening was what originally inspired me to take up gardening. I visited there in 1987; I would love to go again and see what you have described of how it has evolved.

    • jannaschreier says:

      It is a garden that gets under your skin, isn’t it? How romantic that you read Vita’s words and then fell in love with her garden. I do hope you manage to come and see it again one day.

  2. Adriana Fraser says:

    My heart gave a little skip when I read ‘Sissinghurst’ in your post headline Janna – partly excitement of what I was about to read and partly envy of what you saw! What strikes me about these photos is that the planting looks so realaxed – much more like you would try to achieve in your own garden. No great drifts of this and that but a combined, pleasing display. It always gives me hope when I see these types of photos that in very small parts of my garden I AM getting it right. I love your analysis fo Sissinghurst too and admire Troy Scott Smith’s determination and courage to get this right.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Just as my heart gave a little skip when my dad said he would drive my mum and I there! It’s so hard to get to by public transport and we don’t have a car at the moment. Yes, the planting does look incredibly relaxed. I feel I could visit this garden a thousand times and still learn something new of the skill in it. Which is pretty handy: a forever excuse to keep visiting!

      • susurrus says:

        Your post brings back lots of memories for me too – of buildings, lay outs, plants and people. We visited by public transport and were anticipating a tricky journey back to the train until a kind volunteer noticed our plight and offered us a lift. Garden lovers are such nice people. It was just before Chelsea so too early to catch most of the roses, so it’s nice to see them here.

        • jannaschreier says:

          Gardens are often so tricky to get to by public transport, aren’t they? I live in central London, close to all the major train stations and yet I think it still said it would take something like 3.5 hours to get to Sissinghurst. Always the last bit after the station that’s tricky. We don’t have a car but fortunately my Mum loves gardens and does, so that’s how I got there! But you are right, garden lovers are so often very kind, generous people. I think I need to do a trip here earlier in the year, too; I’ve done mid summer and late summer but I’d love to see the bulbs in spring.

  3. germac4 says:

    Lovely post on a gorgeous garden! We visited Sissinghurst garden ten years ago, so it is a treat to see it now, looking even better. As you said, the combination of designer and head gardener is the magic ingredient I’m sure. So congratulations to Dan Pearson and Troy Scott Smith. I enjoyed the blog tour and will come back to it. (it is such a long way to fly to see it ourselves!!)

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the photos. Having visited yourself you will be able to visualise how it all fits together, which is one of the great joys of this garden. And I’m sure I won’t be able to resist posting on it again in due course, now that I am lucky enough to be so close!

  4. Catherine says:

    Truly a sensational garden! I saw Sissinghurst on a UK trip in 2000, and visited Great Dixter the next day. I was surprised when I returned to Australia, full of admiration for Sissinghurst, both for its design and its planting, that others dismissed it and even dissed it, calling it over-contrived and boring and saying Dixter was the real masterpiece. Maybe being such a copied garden throughout the world has unfairly lessened people’s opinion of it, as they forget that it both came before, and was always better than its imitators. I would love to visit again and see bothTroy’s and Dan’s contributions.

    • jannaschreier says:

      I’m sure you are right that its huge success has also been its downfall in terms of originality. Who could imagine the concept of a ‘white garden’ being new? In some ways I think it is a shame that Great Dixter is so geographically close, as it’s impossible not to compare the two, but to me they are both masterpieces in their own, very different ways. It’s possible this isn’t co-incidence, of course: perhaps inspiration from the other has helped galvanise and sustain this. Funnily enough, Mum and I both thought Great Dixter was the real star two years ago, but agreed it was Sissinghurst this time. Perhaps the disagreement in views can be partly explained by differing seasonal peaks or maybe at this level of gardening, being marginally behind on maintenance from time to time makes all the difference?

  5. Louise Dutton says:

    What a true delight! The drifts of colours and plants are just perfect. How lucky you have been to experience this magnificent garden. Seems I have a lot to catch up on in the world of gardens! Obviously many hidden gems to explore and admire throughout the world. Thank you for another interesting blog and beautiful garden to admire.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Was there any sighing out loud this time, Louise?! So many of these plants are exactly the ones you described to me as your favourites, when we first sat down together. In fact, there was also a whole ‘field’ of Delphiniums in the cutting garden, which I didn’t show! One for the top of your list, I think.

      • Louise Dutton says:

        There was indeed some siging….you know me well! A whole field of delphiniums? Do you have a picture you could send me? I was drawn to the picture of the cutting garden. Top of my overseas list for sure!

  6. kate@barnhouse says:

    Janna, sorry to take a while to get back to you with a ‘hear, hear’ comment. Sissinghurst is such a topical debate – just marvellous to see a NT garden generating such thought provoking analysis. I hear they’re going to issue restricted numbers of tickets too, if so, brilliant idea … When I last went it was so crowded all you could do was shuffle round slowly behind the visitor ahead of you. I could feel Vita cringing from her tower …. Thank you for such a reflective and interesting post about one of our iconic gardens.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thanks, Kate. I’m lucky that I managed to go mid-week and the crowds weren’t bad at all. I can’t imagine it’s quite the same experience ‘shuffling’ around! I know Troy told me all the things they were trying to reduce numbers in the garden, such as promoting walks in the wider grounds and having exhibitions and children’s activities. Such a dilemma, but as you say, Vita would not have approved of thousands of people milling around!

  7. rusty duck says:

    It’s years since I went to Sissinghurst and I do love it so. As you will see, the overstuffed look is some way into the future here but it’s such a difficult balance to achieve, especially when you add and relocate plants continuously as I seem to do! I remember walking in the meadow and up the lime walk. The wilder areas were some of my favourite bits.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Yes, the overstuffed look is so hard to get right and even harder – I am sure – when you have a huge garden to fill. That doesn’t stop me being hugely excited to be coming chez rusty duck very soon!

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