It is a widely known fact that the garden at Sissinghurst was created by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson; Harold as the designer and architect, and Vita as the plantswoman. That fact is true for most of the garden but there is one area that was both designed and planted by Harold alone… the Lime Walk.
Harold originally designed the Lime Walk to solve the problem of Sissinghurst’s awkward angles; a common problem that often beset him as he laid out the garden. Originally, he had wanted to link the Rose Garden, the Cottage Garden and the Nuttery with a straight axis line running through them all but, as Harold discovered, it was not meant to be, as the Moat Walk and the Nuttery were at an ‘awkward angle’ to the rest of the garden. This, Harold described in his usual understated way as: “…a bore…” and he set about creating a solution. The solution he came up with was the Lime Walk, which bypassed the Rose Garden and Cottage Garden and formed a new axis line with the Nuttery.
Harold planned the Lime Walk to look its best during the months of March, April and May. Work began in 1932 with the planting of the 30 pleached lime trees (Tilia x europaea) and in 1936 the central path was laid between them. Harold then set about filling the borders in the Lime Walk with a mass of spring flowering bulbs designed to create a rich tapestry of colour. He called the creation of the Lime Walk “My Life’s Work” but his journey to create perfection was not to be a smooth one.
The Lime trees proved troublesome with the basal shoots taking up a significant amount of space and they were prone to sooty mould too. Eventually, they were replanted by Pam and Sibylle in 1977, who chose a different lime (Tilia x euchlora) which did not produce so many suckers and was more resistant to aphids. Most of these trees promptly died during the exceptionally dry summer of 1977. Undeterred, Pam and Sibylle replanted again, this time with Tilia platyphyllos ‘Rubra’. It is this avenue of trees that are still there today forming the defining feature of the Lime Walk.
By the beginning of the war in 1939, all the elements of the Lime Walk were in place, but it was only after the war that Harold really had the time to fully devote himself to ‘MLW’ and from 1946 he threw himself into this project, keeping meticulous notes as he went along. He even employed his own gardener, Sidney Neve, who joined the gardeners at Sissinghurst in 1937, age 17. Harold planted an amazing array of bulbs including many varieties of Narcissus, Tulips, Primroses, Anemones, Scillas, Erythroniums, Violets and Auriculas. His aim was simple; to create the loveliest spring garden in England. Every year he wrote notes in his notebook, commenting on the successes and failures of his plantings. Like most gardeners, he was seldom happy with his results, writing comments such as: “Rather a dull section – enliven”, “Same old story – heaps of primroses but tiny and flowerless” and “Tulips are wrong colour – replace”.
He was helped in his quest for perfection by frequent trips to the RHS spring shows in London tracking down rare and unusual bulbs to add to the Lime Walk. Every year the colour combinations would change slightly, evolving over the years depending on Harold’s interests and recent discoveries. Harold did much of the work himself, regularly weeding and even pruning the limes much to Vita’s consternation, who was convinced that Harold would fall off his ladder. Clearly, this was a topic that was frequently discussed because in 1944, Harold wrote to his sons: ‘Mummy hates ladders… she has an idea that greater safety would be secured if the ladder stood somehow on its end so that the weight of my body would fall upon the rungs and not upon the trees. I pointed out to her gently that in such a posture the ladder might leave the limes and fall backwards. “You don’t understand,” she said: “I can’t explain but it is as simple as hydraulics.” The latter branch of science is not one of the departments on which your mother is really authoritative or even sane!’
But despite these concerns, Harold continued with his creation until he died in 1968. Successive Head Gardeners have ensured that the beauty and simplicity of the Lime Walk endures, continuously improving and replanting areas that need attention. Many of Harold’s choices are still used today and we hope that if Harold were to see the Lime Walk he would approve of how we care for his legacy.
We do hope that you will be able to visit the Lime Walk this Spring. The good news is that due to the cold weather in March, much of the Lime Walk is still yet to flower, so April and May will be the perfect time to visit and view Harold’s great triumph.