Sissinghurst is a romantic place and within the austerity of Harold Nicolson’s straight lines, the garden relies predominantly upon the complex and intricate interplay of perennials, ephemerals and self-sowers to produce profusion, extravagance and exuberance. Without constant re-working the balance of such schemes can easily be lost, with the planting becoming leaden and clunky.
As well as gardening it is important that throughout the season you critically analyse your planting. Following the best of Sissinghurst traditions, I make comments in a notebook, titled (firmly tongue in cheek) ‘Great Thoughts’. In this, I note what’s looking good, what should be changed, tweaked or removed completely. Without this aide memoire it would be very difficult to make effective changes.
I aim for little and often; small scale re-newals are much more preferable then lifting and dividing the whole of a border.
First, begin by clearing any debris and cutting down the top growth, the job becomes easier the more you get to know your plants, for instance the dead growth of Geraniums can simply be stroked away instead of using secateurs, similarly stems of Coreopsis and Phlox can be snapped off at ground level. Others, such as Hemerocallis need their foliage removing early in the autumn; once they’re frosted they become slimy and hard to cut.
Next, using a fork, loosen the soil all the way round the group to be lifted gently teasing the roots away, when the roots are free, lift out the plant. Sometimes we take the plants (now affectionately named ‘Muddy Lumps’) to the potting shed for dealing with later, but most often we aim to divide and replant as quickly as possible after lifting.
My preferred method of division is to use two forks back-to-back to tease the roots apart, however occasionally you will have to use a spade to slice congested plants into palm size pieces ready for planting.
Whenever your lifting and dividing always add compost; about a barrow load per 2sqm and a dressing of organic slow release fertiliser, such as blood, fish and bone or chicken pellets. On our heavy clay soil I also find it beneficial to work sharp grit into the top spit. (Also remember to use planks to stand on and spread your weight, particularly when working on heavy clay soil during this period).
Some of the changes that we are making this year include lifting, dividing and moving to new locations (always a good idea if possible) all the Hemerocallis within the Rose and CottageGardens. At the same time we are adding small leaved Narcissi (such as those in the triandrus, cyclamineus or jonquilla groups), in and around the newly planted Hemerocallis, these will flower early using the emerging Hemerocallis foliage as a background and in turn the expanding Hemerocallis foliage will ‘hide’ the dying Narcissi foliage.
We are also working on increasing the soft, fluid diaphanous planting within the WhiteGarden so that you still see the geometry but have a fuller more immersive and emotional experience. To achieve this we will be planting many more umbels such as Ammi majus, Seseli libanotis and Cenolophium denudatum (used by Beth Chatto to great effect) and other more willowy plants, such as Epilobium angustifolium ‘Album’ and a lovely species Gaura called G. sinuata from Mexico northwards.
Finally, I am most excited about recreating a planting idea of Vita’s, a whole swath of Eremurus robustus planted against the dark inky yew hedge of the Rose Garden. A member of the lily family, its strong pink flowering spikes rocket up to ten feet, like cathedral spires flushed warm in the sunset.
Troy Scott Smith