The Bursting Orchard

The Orchard – March 2013
For those of us who don’t live in the balmy Scilly Isles, March is the month when daffodils suddenly start to burst forth and herald the beginning of ‘proper’ Spring. No more the tiny flowers of winter like snowdrops and winter aconites huddling near the ground, daffodils are bold, cheerful and robust and at Sissinghurst, it is in the Orchard that they are at their best.

When Vita and Harold bought Sissinghurst in 1930, there was already an old Orchard on the site and as plans for the garden evolved Vita and Harold decided that this area was to be a wild garden.

Vita was a huge fan of William Robinson, the Irish gardener who advocated a naturalistic style of planting which was completely at odds with the old Victorian style of formality and uniformity. By 1930, he was 92 and had already written several influential books and articles including The Wild Garden (1870) and The English Flower Garden (1883) and had created a stunning natural garden at Gravetye in West Sussex which he bought in 1884. We know that Robinson wrote to Vita congratulating her on the success of her poem: The Land and invited her to visit Gravetye. Vita visited in 1927 or 28 and was able to see Robinson’s meadows and garden first hand as well as his woods and the source of the River Medway. This undoubtedly influenced her planting in the Orchard. She festooned the old apple and pear trees with climbing roses, and drifts of crocus, fritillaries and narcissus were woven throughout… just as Robinson had done at Gravetye.

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The Orchard in early Spring

If you visit in early March, the first bulbs you will see in the Orchard are Crocus thomasinianus and an early daffodil, probably a form of Narcissus pseudonarcissus. This is followed by an abundance of other narcissus which were planted by Vita and added to over the years by subsequent Head Gardeners. Vita wrote about them on several occasions in her weekly article for The Observer. In April 1953 she wrote: “In common with thousands of my fellow country-men, I remain content to plant a few extra bulbs each year in grass and hope for the best: an elementary method of gardening, but one of the most satisfactory. I grow my daffodils in an orchard, under old apple trees: not a very original idea, but so irresistibly pretty that no gardener could afford to reject it.” She goes on to describe her favourite varieties including the yellow trumpet daffodils: ‘Fortune’, ‘Golden Harvest’, ‘King Alfred’ and ‘Winter Gold’ and the pure white trumpet ‘Beersheba’. She also liked ‘Tunis’, a creamy white daffodil and ‘John Evelyn’ which Vita said: “…increases so rapidly that she I scarcely keep pace with digging up the clumps and replanting them.” ‘Medusa’ is described as ‘sweet-scented’ and the varieties ‘Cheerfulness’, ‘Abundance’ and ‘Soleil d’Or also get a mention. Apparently, ‘Soleil d’Or’ was known as Sally Door by English gardeners who were not familiar with French.

Vita grew all the different varieties mixed up together in drifts and that is exactly how they are today; a happy throng like children in a playground.

By 1956, Vita had added more cultivars to her list of ‘must have’ daffodils including ‘Magnificence’ and ‘Rembrandt’; both yellow trumpet daffodils and ‘Mount Hood’ a white trumpet. ‘Mrs R O Backhouse’, an old pink daffodil bred in 1921, is also a favourite and ended up in the Orchard as a refugee from Harold’s Lime Walk where it refused to flourish because it disliked the dry conditions. Also mentioned are ‘Carlton’, ‘Aranjuez’ and ‘La Riante’ which Vita said is well named: “…for it really does seem to laugh with all the gaiety of spring.”

The Orchard really is lovely in Spring and by the end of March, around Easter time, many of the daffodils should be in full bloom, just in time for a visit.

Of course, the Orchard also has a romantic, special atmosphere in summer when the roses are in full bloom and the grass is long; but more on that another time…

Helen (Gardener)

Crocus thomasinianus in the Orchard

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