The Life of a Head Gardener

Growing up in the Yorkshire Dales I was surrounded by a landscape that at first seemed incomprehensibly large and a little threatening, yet over time I was able to see beyond those first impressions and begin to understand the myriad of complex connections taking place, that together made the landscape what it was.

I began to seek out the intricate patterning and exquisite detail of nature and allow the landscape to engage with me. Quite quickly nature, whether flora or fauna became part of my vocabulary.

From those first observations of plants a love of gardening was sown, which through a nurturing support network of family and friends, grew into a career and ultimately my job as Head Gardener at Sissinghurst today.

I am often asked, ‘How much time do I spend gardening?’ or ‘How do I plan what to do and when?’ In answer to these questions, I garden as much as I can, but I also plan – both short term with my team (about work for the following weeks) and longer term with a wider group of people (about garden renewal work).

I sometimes feel like the luckiest person alive, not only do I get my hands in the soil at Sissinghurst, a soil in which generations of gardeners have created magic, but I also get to play a part in shaping the future of this great garden.

15th September – I visit Dan Pearson at his studio in London.

I invited Dan (in the summer of 2014) to join me at Sissinghurst in an honorary role of Garden Advisor. Through the year we interrogate the planting, bouncing ideas off each other for improvements, but we also talk a lot about the ‘Spirit of Place’ -that is the special qualities that make Sissinghurst distinctive.

We both arrived late to our meeting, Dan due to an over-run with a client in Hammersmith and me because I was delayed looking at planting outside an office block – following the usual pleasantries, conversation quickly turns to flowers and a vase of Sanguisorba’s sitting on Dan’s desk (flowers he picked and brought from his trial in Somerset). Dan points out subtle differences – relative merits and negative traits – each flower is an individual with personality and the sign of great plantsman is to seek out only the best forms for use in our gardens, Dan is one gardener who is constantly on the search.

We get down to work, sketching out plans and making notes; firstly we begin to pull together ideas to help inform a property ‘Masterplan’, an exercise that will begin in earnest later this year at Sissinghurst. Already as a property team we have articulated a ‘Spirit of Place’ and a vision based around the heading:

Sissinghurst: ‘A refuge dedicated to beauty; a romantic garden in rural landscape’

Masterplan thoughts

Masterplan thoughts

The Rose Garden at Sissinghurst in the 1950s

The Rose Garden at Sissinghurst in the 1950s

Now it’s important to bring together all the possibilities that exist to achieve an authentic spirit of place and to form one coherent supported plan.

A plan of the proposed work

A plan of the proposed work

Within the garden our priority is to gain Listed Building Consent (meeting scheduled with the chief conservation officer for Friday 25th to discuss the above proposed alteration) to enable us to progress with various work. Including the White Garden and the area we call the Little North Garden, this is a small garden area adjacent to the White Garden that Vita and Harold planted at one time as a phlox garden. This space has never been open to the public and we would like to return the steps (removed in 1969 to form the foundations of the Gazebo in the Orchard) that lead from the White Garden down into it.

Steps from the White Garden to the Little North Garden removed in 1969

Steps from the White Garden to the Little North Garden removed in 1969

The Gazebo

The Gazebo

In the Rose Garden we puzzle over unresolved issues to the south, trying to achieve a more authentic and natural dialogue between the garden and the landscape beyond.

The Rose Garden with the landscape beyond

The Rose Garden with the landscape beyond

In the Lime Walk we play with the idea of adding Asters for a late season display (two colleagues and I will be going to the Percy Picton Garden on Tuesday 29th to look at Asters and talk to Helen Picton).

The Lime Walk

The Lime Walk

At the garden gate we would like to return the farm pond (as previously discussed on this blog)

A plan of the proposed plan

A plan of the proposed plan

In the nuttery we plan to replant four small areas of Polyanthus (removed in 1974 due to soil sickness) to see if they grow before considering whether we return to full carpet of them.

The Nuttery showing Vita's mass planting of polyanthus

The Nuttery showing Vita’s mass planting of polyanthus

Back at Sissinghurst work is a pace (between the rain) carrying out autumn tasks on the lawns, continuing hedge cutting and starting to lift and divide planting in various parts of the garden. We also are making final adjustments to our bulb planting lists (see excerpt below).

Acidanthera Murielae Picking x100 With Delphiniums
Acis autumnalis Trough 2 (4) x20/5 pots Pot bulbs nearly touching
Albuca nelsonii Moveable pots x3/1 pot Grapefuit size bulb, grit pot and top  Long House in winter
Albuca shawii Moveable pots x3/1 pot Grit pot and top, Long House in winter
Allim ‘White Cloud’ Trial (WG) x10 Check on flowering time, height and quality
Allium cowanii Various beds x100 Planted in succession with cowanii and ‘Graceful’
Allium ‘Graceful’ Various beds x100 To follow Allium cowanii
Allium hollandicum Picking x2000
Allium ‘Mont Blanc’ Trial (WG) x20 Check on flowering time, height and quality
Allium ‘Mount Everest’ Various beds x100 Planted in succession with cowanii and Graceful
Allium nigrum Trial (WG) x10 Check on flowering time, height and quality
Allium ‘Ping Pong’ Trial (WG) x20 Check on flowering time, height and quality
Allium pskemense Trial (WG) x20 Check on flowering time, height and quality
Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ Picking x2000
Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ Bed 5 x75 Plant near yew hedge, drifting into bed
Allium ‘Silver Spring’ Purple Border x100 Plant with Hesperis, saved 30 from 2014
Allium ‘Spider’ Trial (PB) x10 Check on flowering time, height, colour and quality
Allium ‘White Giant’ Various beds x100 To follow ‘Mount Everest’
Anemone ‘Mr Fokker’ Bagatelles (2) x40/8 pots Provide sufficient water and light, 5ppp 4 pots per urn
Anemone ‘The Bride’ Various beds x200
Anthericum liliago ‘Major’ Trial (LNG) x3/1 pot
Bessera elegans Moveable pots x5/1 6″pot Dry winter rest in Long House, lots of grit pot and top
Bongardia chyrsogonum Trough 3 (3) x6/3 pots Grit pot and top
Canna iridiflora (canna x ehemanii) Various beds x3 Plant, store like Dahlia
Cautleya spicata robusta Various beds x3 Protect with fern in winter
Chinodoxa luciliae Top of Peaonia’s x100
Chinodoxa luciliae alba Various beds x100
Chinodoxa sardensis Gentian Bed x600/200 pots Plant with the Gentian sino-ornata, 3ppp
Chrysanthemum ‘Gompie Red’ Picking x4
Chrysanthemum ‘Littleton Red’ Picking x4

If that wasn’t enough in a few days I head off to Japan to build a garden I designed based on Sissinghurst.

Design for Hankyu British Fair, Japan. 4th-14th October 2015

Design for Hankyu British Fair, Japan. 4th-14th October 2015

Troy Smith, Head Gardener

11 thoughts on “The Life of a Head Gardener

  1. This is fast becoming one of my favourite blogs – generous, detailed, passionate. Such exciting things happening at Sissinghurst. It must be energising to work with Dan Pearson – I am sure it will be a brilliant partnership. I am coming to Sissinghurst for the first time in a long time this Saturday and look forward to enjoying the garden and better understanding your plans for the future. All the best Non Morris http://www.thedahliapapers.com

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  2. Thanks Troy for this very interesting account. Really sorry I had to miss out coming over to meet you and work alongside. Please keep writing about your experiences at Sissinghurst or in Japan. All great to read. Joanna G-S

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  3. Thank you Troy for taking the time to update us all on the future plans for Sissinghurst. This is a garden I know & love and I feel confident that the measured approach you are taking, consulting with industry experts and using your own experience, will enhance this iconic garden. Best wishes with your endeavours & good luck in Japan.

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  4. Pingback: A vida de um jardineiro principal + | Quinta do Sargaçal

  5. I enjoyed this “inside look” at plans for the future of Sissinghurst. Such great ideas for returning an even more romantic feel and choosing great points in its history to emphasize this. I realize you are sharing the tip of the iceberg, but it is so much fun to feel just a bit on the “inside”. I absolutely love this blog, and this is a particularly interesting and fun post. Thank you, Troy, and all who write for it.

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  6. I am very much enjoying the Sissinghurst blog now that I can’t visit as often as I would like. I’m so glad you spoke of the “spirit of the place” , something that is sometimes lost in the rush to make every garden interesting to visitors all year round. I’m not sure about the idea of planting Asters in the Lime walk, why not let the beauty of the pleached limes speak for themselves? It must be very hard having the ghost of Vita looking over your shoulder. The difficulty with any garden is that ‘it changes’ and when the creator of the garden is there they respond to those changes whereas many historic gardens become set in stone which is never what a garden should be about. So the “spirit” is deciding what Vita and Harold would have done…………..good luck with the task.

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