As a boy I was fascinated by the intricate design and beauty of our native and introduced flora. This deep and passionate love of the natural world sowed the seed of a future career. I can recall in crystal detail my first day of ‘professional’ gardening – it was 27 years ago at Harewood House, a huge stately pile in Yorkshire belonging to some relative of the Queen.
My approach to gardening, then as now, was intuitive and emotional, rather than intellectual. This approach and the respect for our natural environment continue to nourish and direct my work today.
After Harewood House and following a period of time designing and gardening in France, I returned to England and began work with the National Trust, first at Bodnant in Wales and then from 1992 to 1997 here at Sissinghurst. I had no thought then, that one day I would return and have the opportunity to a play a key role in helping to shape its future. It is now a little over a year since I returned to Sissinghurst, a year of unadulterated pleasure looking at and working in one of the world’s most celebrated gardens.
In spring before the cloak of flower and foliage has covered the garden like a broad duvet, it is Harold’s design and layout that is prominent. Along with the backbone of ancient brick walls, it is the evergreen hedges of dark inky yew that are a key ingredient in the garden’s vocabulary, providing the narrative for the entire show.
In early summer, Vita’s planting schemes become more evident and one can study her use of colour as a tool for creating moods and atmospheres within the garden. For example, The Purple Border is a subtle yet complex dynamic blend of tones from both the warm and cold parts of the colour spectrum. Potentially sullen and sombre, Vita’s clever stretching of the colour purple to include magenta of Geranium psilostemon and scarlet of Rosa moysii combine brilliantly to provide a rich tapestry made from the most luxurious velvet.
As we reach high summer you can feel your pulse racing as the planting throbs in a tidal wave of colour. The vermillion coloured Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ in the Cottage Garden in tandem with the Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, spill out across the path and drip their glowing petals to the floor, like molten lava.
In a relatively large garden like Sissinghurst it is possible to manipulate the diverse areas of the garden to climax at different times, and this is exactly what Vita and Harold did. And so moving through the year we come to the turn of the White Garden to reach its floral zenith. The surprise and delight of emerging quite suddenly and unexpectedly from the long, dark avenue of yew into the brilliance of the White Garden is for me and thousands of others simply breath-taking. Filled with a mix of white flowering shrubs, perennials and supporting ephemerals that froth and foam over a sea of grey foliage, the White Garden is a lasting memory of the beauty and romance that is Sissinghurst.
So there it is. Gardeners I think have the most difficult of jobs balancing science and art, applying a methodical approach but with flair and imagination. But more than that, we have to consider the dimension of time, and not just the time of day or season, but the passing years when nature’s growth expands and matures, lending the garden a different identity, almost beyond the gardeners’ control. As Vita put it in her Poem ‘The Garden’:
You dreamed us, and we made your dreams come true,
We are your vision, here made manifest,
You sowed us, and obediently we grew,
But, sowing, you sowed more then you knew,
And something not ourselves has done the rest.
However from that very first day 27 years ago, I find it to be the most rewarding of jobs, a fulfilling passion and one that I never want to give up.
Troy Smith, Head Gardener