In Search of Vita’s vision…

As Trust ownership of Sissinghurst approaches its first half a century and with my arrival as Head Gardener in May 2013, it has provided a timely opportunity to consider how closely the design and plant content in the garden reflects the original intentions and distinctive character of its creators Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West.

Aerial photo of Sissinghurst.

From the early years of the garden becoming a National Trust property interventions were made to enable a greater footfall, such as the implementation of hard surface paths where once there was grass. A programme of ‘tidying’ and a need to facilitate the many visitors has resulted in an erosion of the distinctive character of the garden particularly in areas to the periphery of the garden.

Sissinghurst has become one of the most documented and scrutinised twentieth century gardens in the world during the relatively short period of time since its creation. This course was set when Harold began recording in detail the development of the garden in his diaries from 1930 and Vita was commissioned to write a weekly gardening column in The Observer newspaper.

When Harold and Vita began to make a garden at Sissinghurst in 1930, it was Harold’s methodical approach and keen eye for architectural form that imposed a structure to the misaligned remains of a lost Tudor manor. This provided the backbone to Vita’s experimental planting schemes eventually leading to the development of her unique style that would influence and inspire future gardens on an international scale. As the garden reached a post-war maturity in the late fifties, it entered a further phase of development when Pam Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger were employed by Vita and Harold as joint Head Gardeners. Their disciplined training in horticulture under Miss Havergal at Waterperry in Oxfordshire was stark contrast to Vita’s relaxed gardening style.

Pam and Sybille’s tenure became the most significant period in the gardens history post Harold and Vita’s ownership and to a greater extent is responsible for how the gardens are presented today, an influence that continued through successive Head Gardeners. (There have been two Head Gardeners to follow since Pam and Sybille’s retirement, Sarah Cook and Alexis Datta).

In 2011 the property commissioned a Conservation Management Plan. This work referenced the many writings and publications to date about Sissinghurst and collated an understanding of the place based on these in a single document. It highlights a number of gaps in knowledge in particular around planting detail and how Vita developed her garden ideas. It also provides an opportunity to assess how closely the garden reflects the ambitions and vision that Harold and in particular Vita had and how far these may have drifted from their original intentions over time.

This year I commissioned Monique Wolak to undertake detailed research for the major garden areas including the areas periphery to the garden. I also invited Dan Pearson to assist with the garden as an honorary garden advisor, contributing ideas and thoughts on planting and design considerations.

The results from this close study of the garden will contribute to a five-year programme to re-capture the distinctive qualities of Vita and Harold’s Sissinghurst and enable the following objectives to be delivered:

  • A distinctive garden that captures the spirit of its creators and succeeding Head Gardeners in its planting style whilst continuing to develop and change.
  • A garden that will engage the interest of and provide an exceptional experience for visitors.
  • A reversal of negative interventions that have occurred over time.
  • The garden that retains the national and international significance of a twentieth century garden that continues to influence and inspire gardens of the future.
  • A garden that acts as a training ground and inspiration for gardeners of the future.

Troy Smith (Head Gardener)