The question I’m most often asked whilst working in the Herb Garden is: ‘What’s that plant doing in a herb garden?’ or put more directly: ‘Is that a herb?’ This is because, understandably, many visitors compare the garden to their own selection of herbs at home, which will probably comprise the more familiar plants used in the kitchen – mint, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme, etc. However, not all herbs are edible. Many of the 146 plants in this garden could cause, if ingested in sufficient quantity, at the very least a stomach upset and at the very worst a painful death. Furthermore, herbs are not a specific botanical group, they are from many different genera and include annuals, biennials and perennials.
The true definition of the word ‘herb’ (which derives from the Latin herba meaning grass or green crops), is in fact any plant which has a use, either medicinal, culinary or any other practical use. The leaves and stems of Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) for example, will produce a lathery liquid when bruised and boiled in water, which as the name suggests has cleansing properties. It was widely used until the commercial introduction of soap in the 19th Century, but is still used today by conservators in museums, galleries and of course National Trust properties, for the delicate cleaning of fabrics, furniture and paintings.
Another common query is: ‘Why did Vita put the Herb Garden so far from the kitchen?’ The simple answer is that this kind of practicality was clearly irrelevant to Vita. The Herb Garden was essentially another collection of plants to satisfy her voracious appetite for acquiring and combining them. It was partly inspired by the plants named in Shakespeare’s writing and the disappearing, romantic folklore of rural England. During the war, there was a group of herbs planted more conveniently for the kitchen, in what is now the White Garden. It is well recorded that Vita also enjoyed making pot-pourri.
The Herb Garden, not surprisingly, is unlike any other at Sissinghurst. Perhaps that is why it was flung out on the periphery, so far from any of the other garden rooms. It differs especially in that it cannot easily conform to the ideas of successional planting or carefully co-ordinated colour schemes. It is by nature a little less controlled, despite the contrasting formality of its pleasing, linear layout. Many herbs are relatively short-lived and most do not flower for long, many have a tendency to spread vigorously or seed themselves prolifically. Although the majority of the plants in this garden are perennials and remain more or less in their allocated positions, 42 of the plants are either annual or biennial and these move around the beds according to a new plan created every year. We now produce second crops of French parsley (Petroselinum crispum French), Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), Rocket (Eruca vesicaria subsp. sativa), Caraway (Carum carvi), Dill (Anethum graveolens), Fennel Flower (Nigella sativa) – all of which are useful for filling some of the gaps which appear as the season moves on. All this makes the Herb Garden a challenge to manage and maintain, but there is still much to please the eye as the plants progress through their individual life cycles.
Whilst some of the plants are cut down or removed not long after flowering – either to avoid them seeding everywhere or because they eventually offer little aesthetic value, a few are left for their attractive seed heads. Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), a biennial, is one of these. The cone-like flower heads were once used for raising the nap on woollen cloth, such as the green baize of billiard tables. Another example, which is currently my favourite plant in the Herb Garden, is one of the Sages – the Salvia sclarea var. turkestanica. I like it for the unusually generous, richly textured leaves, but most of all for its delicate spikes of soft pink and blue-flecked white flowers, which even whilst fading retain an understated beauty; giving the plant a very long season of interest from Spring sometimes until the end of September – a valuable addition in any sunny border in any kind of garden.
Peter Fifield – Gardener
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