Digging up the ‘Donkeys’

You may, or may not already know of the unofficial name given to the front courtyard entrance at Sissinghurst…? ‘The Donkey’s,’ which affectionately refers back to past times when Vita and Harold kept a nice old Donkey called ‘Abdul’, who led a wooden cart stocked with plants from the garden available for sale. This name has since been adopted by the gardeners, so bare it in mind when you next visit.

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Abdul the donkey with handler, Kit Boynton in 1946. (Thanks to Peter Mellor for this image)

There has been some digging in the Donkeys. Significant border renewal and soil improvement to be more precise, involving several days of hard work, removal of shrubs, help from a mini digger and of course some good old fashioned elbow grease. All in preparation for a new planting scheme devised by Troy to be implemented in due course. How exciting!

The Donkeys prior to clearance.

A little closer; the rather dull, uninspiring planting

And after clearance.

Before me, I have the planting plan, rough drawing, in blue biro displaying an intricate list of plant names and their positions in the border. There is a key, several arrows indicating some questions about possible plant additions and a long list of at least 50 plant species with the numbers of each plant at the opposite side. It looks like a lot.

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The great concept behind it is to bring Vita’s vision and indeed some of the plants she particularly admired out of the enclosure of the main walled garden and back into the limelight. But, as Troy explained yesterday, he does not want to “to create anything too showy” and talks about choosing a restricted colour palette and suitable plant species which he believes will compliment and reflect the spirit of Sissinghurst.
Troy specifically mentions the inclusion of Musk Roses, because Vita was impressed by their long season of interest, provided by repeat flowering, autumn leaf colour, hips and beautiful scent. The varieties ‘Buff Beauty, Penelope, Felecia and Pink Prosperity’ are all named on the list.

The garden entrance in the 1950’s

and in 1930 before any work at all- you can see that the entrance is bricked up.

As I try to imagine the drawing in three dimensions, “Not too showy” definitely does not imply that the combination of perennials and bulbs he has chosen, or any individual plant species for that matter, will be in any danger of appearing dull. According to the plan, there will be all sorts of beautiful things to see, like Eremurus robustus at the back of one of the borders, followed by a Clematis climbing up a tripod, next to some Delphinium elatum hybrids, inter planted with bulbs of Allium Christophii. There are many others. Peonies, Digitalis, Lilies, Tulips, Cyclamen, Geranium species, Thalictrum and so on.

The other notable benefit to all these changes and one I am already pleased to see, is the revelation of the Elizabethan brick buildings themselves. Now you can clearly see the symmetrical arches above the doorways on both sides of the main garden gate. I can’t wait to see how the plants establish over the next few years, but first we have to plant them.

Jo – Gardener

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