Jack Vass: The forgotten Head Gardener, Part 2

This week, the story of Jack Vass continues with Jack returning to Sissinghurst in 1946 after the war…

Together Vita and Jack planned a systematic overhaul of the garden that would take about 5 years to complete. Vita was full of confidence in Jack writing in 1946, ‘Vass is a gardener after my own heart, I love his keenness and knowledge, only I think it is a good thing to be behind him to check his love of over-neatness with my own more romantic and more untidy view of what the garden should be… I couldn’t wish for a nicer gardener.’

The first task that Jack undertook was to restore the Nuttery to its former glory. This was very important to Harold as, to him, it was a ‘symbol of all that was bright and good’, particularly so after the war.

The Nuttery 1953

The Nuttery 1953. Copyright Adam Nicolson.

Then Jack and his team moved into the Top Courtyard and Lower Courtyard, ploughing up the lawns and reseeding them. They went through all the beds and borders in the Rondel Garden, removing plants and ridding the soil of ground elder. The Cottage Garden was then tackled followed by the Herb Garden which was the most overgrown and neglected of all. The whole Herb Garden was dug over and potatoes grown in it for a season in order to clean the soil. It was at this point that the existing four beds were further divided into 20 smaller beds with the marble bowl from Constantinople taking centre stage. The rather strange seat built out of odd bits of stone was designed and built by Jack and Copper. It was nicknamed ‘Edward the Confessor’s chair’.

The Herb Garden showing Edward the Confessor's chair

The Herb Garden showing Edward the Confessor’s chair

The moat also needed attention; a fallen bank was rebuilt and returfed and the lake dredged. All this required a plentiful supply of energy and skill and Jack led his team with enthusiasm and knowledge. He and Vita developed an excellent working relationship with Vita writing in 1948, ‘His keen-ness is so endless, and nothing is too much trouble.’ She noted that Vass had ‘a sort of instinctive good taste…besides, he’s so nice to look at, so decorative.’

By 1948, the garden was largely restored and Vita and Vass turned their attention to developing the garden.

The idea of a White Garden was once more raised and a firm plan made to move Vita’s rose garden from the area between the Tower Lawn and the Priest House to the Rondel Garden. This would allow that area to be transformed into a white, grey and green garden. Back in 1939 when Vass had drained the Lion Pond in the Lower Courtyard, Vita had originally thought of making a white garden in this area, writing to Harold on Dec 13 about her idea- ‘I have got what I hope will be a really lovely scheme for it: all white flowers, with some clumps of very pale pink. White clematis, white lavender, white agapanthus, white double primroses, white anemones, white lilies…’ But Harold had warned against this, as he thought the area to be too shady. Fortunately she heeded his warning as the Sunk Garden [as it became] is not only shady but also very wet and floods regularly in the winter.

February 2014, the flooded Sunk Garden.

February 2014, the flooded Sunk Garden.

The plan for the White Garden went ahead in 1949-1950 with Harold designing a new layout and Jack propagating the plants for it. Life in post-war Britain was still austere and to spend a lot of money on new plants would have been unthinkable. Fortunately for Vita, Jack was a skilled propagator and many of the plants for the White Garden came from seeds and cuttings from all over the garden. Other plants came from friends and a few special ones such as Paeonia suffruticosa, which were quite rare in the late 1940’s, were bought from specialist nurseries. Quite often Vita would buy only one plant which Jack would take cuttings from in order to create a good number for the garden. His friend and colleague John Humphris wrote that Jack had ‘an innate ability to grow plants of all kinds and also to propagate, he put roots on plants often considered impossible and then proceeded to grow them on (often more difficult) into superb young plants.’ In total, the planting of the White Garden cost £3.

Vita's glasshouse, probably taken in the 1950's.

Vita’s glasshouse, probably taken in the 1950’s.

Other developments followed including the creation of the Thyme Lawns, made in 1950, the Sunk Garden made in the former Lion Pond, the Moat Walk and the development of the Rondel Garden into a Rose Garden. Vita’s plant collection grew throughout the 1950’s with plants coming from many different sources including nursery catalogues as well as private gardens such as Bodnant and Hever Castle. Her aristocratic pedigree gave her contacts, and opened doors, all over the country and, being an avid plant collector, she was quick to take advantage of this. In fact, she always travelled with a sponge bag and a potato in order to keep cuttings fresh and hydrated.

The rose collection continued to grow with friends such as Constance Spry and Nancy Lindsay sending Vita roses and others coming from specialist nurseries such as Hilda Murrell’s nursery at Shrewbury. By 1953 at least 194 different roses were grown at Sissinghurst. All these plants required care and attention and it was Jack and his team who had the job of looking after Vita’s growing collection. Vita’s natural inclination was to allow the garden to have a certain wildness about it which fitted her romantic and free nature. This was balanced by Jack’s horticultural training which recognised the need to bring some order to the garden so that everything could flourish as a whole. Together they made an ideal partnership. It was Jack who began the tradition of pruning and tying the roses to hazel benders in order to increase flowering and bring the flowers down to eye level. He also tamed the briar rose by tying the new shoots on to wires after pruning and although Vita was initially cross with him for doing this (she said it looked like a sheep pen) she nevertheless, recognised the benefits of these methods and was soon writing about them in her Observer articles. In fact, this method is still used today.

November 2014; the newly pruned briar rose.

November 2014; the newly pruned briar rose.

Vita’s strength was in creating imaginative planting schemes and using colour in stunning combinations. Jack’s strength was in highly skilled horticultural techniques, and he carried out Vita’s ideas to the highest standard. Some of her ideas though were not actually very practical but Jack would say ‘yes madam’ and then interpret her ideas using his horticultural skills and knowledge. The garden went from strength to strength.

But all good things come to an end, and the end of Jack’s Sissinghurst days arrived in 1957. Many stories abound as to why Jack left Sissinghurst; a falling out over the Sissinghurst Flower Show and suspicions of communism [Jack was actually very patriotic] are two of the popular ones but the truth is rather more straight forward. Jack’s wife did not get along with Vita. Mrs Vass was a small Scottish lady and very outspoken. We don’t know exactly why they didn’t get on, (although perhaps we can imagine) but Jane Brown writes in her book ‘Vita’s Other World’ that ‘Mrs Vass did not fit into the tight Sissinghurst community’. Eventually, the situation became too difficult for Jack and he and Vita parted company. It was the end of a long and fruitful relationship and one which set Sissinghurst on its path of becoming one of the most famous and beautiful gardens in the world.

As for Jack, his gardening days were far from over and he went on to have a long and happy career, ending his days as Head Gardener at Borde Hill. He died on Dec 4th 1995.

Jack Vass, working in the rose border at Borde Hill Garden.

Jack Vass, working in the rose border at Borde Hill Garden. Copyright John Humphris.

Perhaps it is fitting to finish with a quote from John Humphris who wrote Jack’s obituary; ‘In today’s era of instant gardening with almost as many instant experts, the true professional craftsmen are becoming extremely rare. Always willing to share his knowledge and with an infectious enthusiasm it has been both a privilege and education to learn from someone who represented horticulture at its best in the 20th century.’

We hope that Jack would approve of how we are looking after the garden if he were to see it today. He is someone we would want to impress!

Helen Champion